They say that life can change in an instant but it’s something we don’t really pay that much attention to – I know I never did. Then, two years ago, my life completely changed. What makes it interesting is that the hero who saved me is a complete stranger I will never have the pleasure of meeting.
Two years ago, I was 28 and I had the world at my feet. I had completed my first degree, built myself up in the world of business and was almost at the end of my second degree. Life was pretty good and I didn’t have much to complain about. I remember going to bed one night feeling excited about my future and where my life was going. I had no idea that overnight my outlook on life would literally change forever.
I woke up and opened my eyes. The world was literally a blur. The sight out of my left eye was the worst affected, and everything was just a mass of colour. I could focus on objects very close to me (like under my nose) but other than that, objects just meshed together. I was in total shock and yet instead of worrying, I convinced myself that it was simply due to a late night infront of the laptop. My right eye was affected, but with a squint here and there I could get through. And surprisingly, I did.
It wasn’t easy and that day was awful. I couldn’t read any signs, I couldn’t focus on anyone’s faces and I couldn’t even read a book without great difficulty. I remember sitting at the very front of a lecture theatre and I couldn’t see the board or the lecturer. I finally broke down in the toilet afterwards and my mum came to meet me. Terrified, I went to the opticians.
The optician visit quickly turned into a hospital visit and I was diagnosed with Keratoconus. This is a condition where the cornea in your eye moves and starts to form a point. It makes everything blurry and only gets worse over time. Both my eyes were affected, but my left had rapidly deteriorated. The right was clinging on to what little focused vision still remained. My doctor said he was worried that I would fall down a ditch because I wouldn’t see it. I don’t remember crying or feeling anything at that point.
They don’t know what causes Keratoconus and there is no easy cure. My condition had spread so quickly that the only option for my left eye was to go on a cornea transplant waiting list. I was told of all the problems that could occur: my body could reject it, other problems could develop and it would be a long, difficult journey with no guaranteed results.
But rather bluntly, my surgeon told me I had nothing left to lose and that my left eye was now at a point that it couldn’t get any worse. I went onto the waiting list and boy did I wait.
It was a year and a half before I finally got given a date for my operation. My right eye was deteriorating at a snail’s pace and I wanted to make the most of what sight I had left. So I did.
I completed my second degree and I travelled to Italy and Greece with a friend to see the ancient sites for what I believed would be the last time. Don’t get me wrong, none of this was done without assistance or the use of visual aids. Every little thing I did was a challenge that took longer than ever before; I even needed someone to help me down stairs and tell me when a kerb was approaching. But I was determined to enjoy myself and most of the time, I did.
It wasn’t all ‘making the most of it’ – there was a lot of time spent on frustration as well. I would slam books shut and throw them across the room, and there were certain university classes I couldn’t take because it would just be too difficult. I felt like a burden and resented everyone: I probably wasn’t the most fun person to be around, to say the least.
Waiting on a donor was a weird feeling. On the one hand, I wanted a new cornea more than anything; a chance to have my sight back. But on the other hand, I didn’t want someone to die for it. I know everyone does, it just isn’t a great thought. I also worried about everything that could go wrong and when the date was confirmed, I was terrified.
I was booked in for the afternoon and I didn’t sleep much the night before. I had this idea that if I stayed awake morning would never come but eventually I crashed out. Before I knew it, I was in the waiting room with my mum. The nurse called my name and I was immediately parted from her, and she was told to come back at visiting hours around 6pm.
An hour later, I was in a hideous hospital gown being wheeled around in a bed waiting to be taken down to theatre. Inside I was screaming but I managed to remain composed, for the most part.
There were three surgeons working on my eye, one whom was my regular eye doctor and, by this time, we had formed a good bond. They all came to visit me before we went down to theatre, and that’s when the tears started flowing as I admitted to them how scared I was and how worried I was that I wouldn’t wake up; this was my first operation, after all.
They marked a large X above my left eye with a black marker so that they remembered to operate on the correct eye. Apparently this is routine, but it didn’t fill me with much confidence.
In the theatre, I squeezed a nurse’s hand tightly and within seconds, I was asleep. The next thing I remember is the same nurse saying my name as I started to stir. I didn’t immediately feel anything other than an overwhelming sickness. In recovery, I couldn’t eat anything but they eventually let me back up to the ward and my mum was there waiting for me.
My eye was covered with an eye guard and I was given a lot of pain medication. I couldn’t open either of my eyes but I was starting to chat a little more and my mum brought me some food and my favourite mint tea. As it was a female eye ward, there were two elderly ladies facing me who had both of their eyes covered after different operations.
I got home the next day and that is when the recovery really began. It takes 18 months to two years for the recovery and for the final sight result to be known. The first three months were awful – painful, uncomfortable and I could barely open my eyes. I was lucky to have some amazing friends who would come and visit me, but a few friends abandoned me, too. It is such a true saying: you don’t know who your friends are until the going gets tough.
I’ve faced some stumbling blocks during my recovery, but overall it has been going really well. I have had six of the 17 stitches removed and once they’re all gone, a final eye test will be carried out. Vision wise, there is an improvement. It’s not perfect, but I am optimistic. Most importantly, my body has welcomed its new attachment with open arms.
I have started reading again and can do things I thought I’d said goodbye to forever. I still have a long way to go, but I’m really positive about the future and I cannot thank the donor enough. There is a huge shortage of corneas here in the UK and I understand that people have this queasy feeling about donating their ‘eyes’, so I wanted to clear a few things up:
You are NOT donating your eye. Your cornea is the clear layer over the front of your eye and that is all they will take. Your eyes remain intact, they do not change colour and giving the gift of sight is such a precious thing.
Had I not had a transplant, I’m not sure what my life would be like right now. A donor saved me, my career, my dreams – everything.
The funniest thing to come out of this is that I am so glad it happened to me. I have a new found appreciation for the little things in life and this is a rare gift I wish we all possessed. I now want to dedicate my life to raising awareness of the importance of cornea transplant donation. As soon as the remaining stitches come out, I am going to face my biggest fear, skydiving, to raise money for an amazing eye charity. I only wish I had the chance to meet my donor to say thank you.
So please, think about donating your corneas. I was blessed with perfect vision all my life and never imagined I would be a transplant patient. If you are in doubt about donating, then ask yourself:
What if one day my life changes in the blink of an eye?
– Sarah Ann