Words can’t express how thankful I am
Kelly Summers, 54, can tell you a thing or two about corneal transplants. In her lifetime, she has had five. All treatments were meant to help correct the permanently damaged surface of her eyes. The cause of the damage is unknown – she has only been told that it could have been a result of an autoimmune issue or potentially related to wearing contact lenses at a young age.
In 1987 Kelly was a tenacious student at the University of Alberta studying to be an accountant. She started to notice severe redness and discomfort in her eyes. After going to her doctor she found out her cornea, the clear, smooth lens of the eye was actually very rough and bumpy. She was scheduled for a corneal transplant in her right eye – a revolutionary procedure in the 80s.
Kelly’s home phone didn’t have an answering machine, so she missed her first call for a transplant. “You had two hours to call the hospital back and if you missed that window, the tissue went to the next available person,” says Kelly. “Luckily, after 14 months, I was able to have a transplant.” Kelly spent 10 full days in the hospital after the procedure – which is contrast to the 40-minute day-surgery that exists today. The transplant was deemed successful and Kelly continued to live her life, focusing on her blossoming career.
In the late 80s Kelly was offered an opportunity to work with the Ministry of Natural Resources in Sioux Lookout, a remote part of Northwestern Ontario. The job involved helicopter rides to survey wildlife, floods and forest fires. After five years working up north, Kelly started to experience severe deterioration of her eyesight again. “I just couldn’t see and everything was cloudy,” says Kelly. “I couldn’t drive, and we didn’t have public transportation, plus it was much harder to find a specialist to treat me – so I made the decision to take a new job opportunity in London, Ontario.”
By 1996, Kelly was getting used to the phrase “we’re not really sure what to do.” Legally blind, she could no longer drive and was starting to rely more on friends and family to help her live her life. Determined not to let her growing disability get in the way of her career, Kelly found it hard to come to terms with what was really happening. “I hate to say this, but back then there was a stigma around having a disability,” says Kelly. “I didn’t want to be judged based on what was happening to my eyesight, so I worked around it.”
Luckily, at the Eye Institute of Ottawa, Kelly met a young surgeon who was able to treat her damaged eye tissue. He gave her stem cell therapy in her right eye and then followed the therapy with a corneal transplant. Finally, Kelly could see again out of her right eye.
Seven years later, Kelly’s left eye was beginning to fail. She had the same surgery – stem cell therapy and a corneal transplant. In 2006 her right eye began to deteriorate all over again – 10 years after her second transplant.
In 2013, Kelly had her fourth corneal transplant in her right eye. “We knew right away it didn’t work,” says Kelly. “The damaged tissue continued to take over the new cornea my vision didn’t improve.” It was devastating but soon after this procedure was Kelly approached with an innovative solution.
A turning point
In December 2014, Kelly had a prosthetic cornea implanted in her right eye. This lasting solution will prevent her damaged tissue from growing over her cornea like is has in the past. It’s a combination of a prosthetic cornea and donated tissue – so the prosthetic can stay attached to the eye. In some time, Kelly anticipates that she will have the same procedure in her left eye.
Words can’t express
Throughout her medical journey, Kelly will often stop and think about the eye and tissue donors and their families who’ve helped her along the way. “After each procedure I would have mixed emotions,” says Kelly. “I felt joy because I could see again. I also felt gratitude towards the donor and their family and recognized how difficult of a time they must be going through. I feel like thank you doesn’t do it justice. Words can’t express how appreciative I am."