Twenty-nine years ago, a miracle happened.
But first, allow me to back up to the very beginning.
At fourteen months of age, I was diagnosed with Scheie Syndrome. Google it if you must, but I’m warning you - some of the pictures are unsettling. You see, Scheie Syndrome is a less-severe version of something called Hurler’s Disease. Now that one’s real scary – misshapen features, physical and intellectual disabilities, and an average lifespan of ten years.
Scheie Syndrome’s primary symptoms are cloudy corneas and decreasing vision. It’s akin to looking through a very dirty window. Eyeglasses don’t help. That, my parents were told, would be like covering that dirty window with another one. Corneal transplants were in their infancy during the 1960’s, and Dr. Harold Scheie, my ophthalmologist and the person responsible for identifying Scheie Syndrome, warned my parents to avoid transplants at all cost. The new corneas would cloud up, too, he said.
So you live with it. I didn’t know my vision was different from anyone else’s until my first day of school. Our teacher wrote the letters of the alphabet on the blackboard and had us copy them. I couldn’t see the board. That wonderful teacher, Mrs. Hurlock, knew this already. “Move closer so you can see,” I remember her saying. ‘Closer’ was four feet from the board. That became my spot.
I’ll save the details for a future post, but my vision remained steady through my mid-twenties. Having never experienced good vision, I couldn’t fully appreciate what I was missing. I’d always held books two inches from my nose and struggled to recognize friends from further than ten feet. Like many kids, I graduated, went off to college, and got a job. I’d been teaching for five years when I noticed my vision was dimming. Teaching notes had to be larger. Lighting had to be brighter. After avoiding the eye doctor for years, it was time to return.
For the better part of an hour, a staff ophthalmologist at St. Louis University Hospital examined me with scopes and bright lights. After one last check, he jotted a few notes, and turned to me.
“You need a cornea transplant.”
Remembering what my parents were told a quarter-century earlier, my response was quick:
“I want to see your boss.”
I learned two things that day. First, some doctors don’t appreciate being second-guessed. Second, medical technology had come a long way. The head of the SLU Department of Ophthalmology was a kind man named Dr. David Schanzlin. He ooohed and ahhhed when I told him of my childhood visits with Dr. Scheie. “A pioneer,” he said. “His work shaped our field… but times have changed.”
Then, he threw out the line that clinched it.
“You’re going blind.”
With little to lose, I had my name added to the list for a donor cornea. In 1987, the wait could be anywhere from one to six months. Then, the second week of January, I received word that I was nearing the top of the list. “Stay near the phone and be ready to leave for the hospital,” they told me.
The date was January 25, a Monday. I was in class when the office said I had a phone call.
“Mr. Wootten, we have your cornea.”
That was twenty-nine years ago this week. The transplant was so successful that the twelve-month waiting period between transplants was waived. In June, I received my second transplant. Two months later, I was fitted with contact lenses. A month after that, at age twenty-nine, I got my driver’s license. Forty days after that, my first speeding ticket.
That transplant gave out three years ago, one year past the twenty-five year life expectancy of a cornea. I received a new one. It’s doing well. My left cornea will be twenty-nine this summer. It’s also doing fine, and says hello.
I divide my life into two parts. There were the twenty-nine years before my first transplant, and this month marks twenty-nine years since. Both parts are chockful of blessings and challenges. I screwed up plenty of things before and after, and made a few good decisions, too.
I sure do like seeing.
How about you? Are you an organ and tissue donor? I’ve heard the reasons not to sign up: “I want my organs with me when I’m buried,” or “it creeps me out.”
More to the point, I’ve experienced the good that comes from organ and tissue donation.
If you’ve registered as a tissue donor, please let me know, either by email, on my Facebook page, or in the comments section below. If you want to sign up, go here or click on the picture of the eye, sign up, and let me know about it. I’ll pick one donor at random to receive a complimentary signed copy of my upcoming book, Shunned.
And as always, thanks for reading.