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April 04, 2013
Restoring Dreams Through Cornea Donation
Cornea Donation Allows Mother of Five to See Again
Since she was a child Sarah Mittler knew exactly what she wanted to do − be a wife and mother. She and her husband, Tom, were living their dream of a life complete with five kids, two dogs and a packed schedule of activities, until Sarah’s vision started to deteriorate.
Sarah first noticed something was different when trying to read the wall clock at the bottom of the stairs.
“I looked so dirty and cloudy so I cleaned it, but I still couldn’t see it,” Mittler said.
Things just kept getting worse. She couldn’t read a menu when the family went out to dinner and soon had to give up reading all together. She couldn’t sign a check or fill out a form for her kids’ school. She could no longer help with homework and lost the ability to read labels and recipes.
“Slowly my ability to be a mother and guide my children was being taken away,” Mittler said. “I was afraid of going blind. I felt like I had no hope. My eyesight and my dreams were fading."
She made an appointment to see Felipe de Alba, MD, Loyola University Health System ophthalmologist and retinal specialist, where she found out she had Fuchs’ corneal dystrophy. This is an uncommon disorder that causes the cornea to swell due to excess fluid, resulting in vision loss.
In most cases the disease progresses slowly. Unfortunately, for Mittler, this wasn’t the case.
“We thought it would take a long time for things to get bad, but things started progressing rapidly and I was relying more and more on my kids to do things that I would usually do. It was too dangerous for me to drive and I had trouble with stairs. I started putting cumin on toast instead of cinnamon. I just knew I couldn’t live like this anymore,” Mittler said. “I went back to the doctor and said, ‘I’m a mom and I can’t be a mom anymore. You have to help me.’ "
Mittler was referred to Charles Bouchard, MD, chair of the Department of Ophthalmology at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.
“It’s never an easy decision to decide if someone should have surgery, but Sarah and I discussed it and we decided it was time,” Bouchard said.
Sarah required a corneal transplant procedure called Descemet Stripping Endothelial Keratoplasty (DSEK). This surgical procedure uses only a very thin portion of the cornea for transplant and has much quicker recovery times and less chance of rejection than a full-thickness corneal transplant, which has been used since 1905.
After the transplant, Mittler was amazed how well she could see even after a short time. Almost all her life she had worn glasses and now she has nearly perfect vision.
“Tom removed the patch from my eyes and all of the sudden I saw him, I saw my kids and I realized it had been such a long time since I actually had seen my family,” Mittler said. “Going through something like this really makes you appreciate the small things. All the things as a mom that I complained about, laundry, school forms, when you start to lose them you miss them. I told God I would never complain about them again."
“To do this surgery we have to have cornea tissue from a patient who has died. It’s hard to communicate to someone how their donation of a loved one’s corneas can really make a huge transformation in someone’s life,” Bouchard said.
Though the patient may never know the donor’s name or story, Bouchard still asks them to write a note saying “thank you” to the family for this amazing gift. The note is then sent anonymously to the family through the Illinois Eye Bank.
“I am so grateful that at an extremely terrible time in their lives someone cared enough to think about me and they don’t even know me. Every day I pray about the gift they gave me from their loved one. I ask God to encircle them with His love and peace,” Mittler said. “My dream of being a mom – the disease started to take that away, but they gave it back to me. What they did – it takes my breath away.”