When you’re given a second lease on life, something happens. You don’t take as much for granted. You see things as if for the first time. And if the second lease is for your eyes, you really see things as if for the first time.
A recent photography exhibit in Denver, organized by the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Bank, featured photos taken by people who had received cornea transplants. The Circle of Light Exhibit featured 25 photos chosen by professional photographers.
Among them were photos by Karen Wiest and Eric Evans, both of whom have keratoconus.
A native Coloradan, Karen Wiest says she’d always had poor eyesight. She reached a point in 1995 when blurriness and double-vision — which she later realized are just “normal KC views” — rendered her unable to see, even with glasses. She visited her eye doctor and was diagnosed with keratoconus, of which she’d never heard. “The doctor explained it to me and started me on my ‘tour of keratoconus,’” she recalls with a chuckle.
Wiest, a medical assistant, tries to learn all she can about things before reacting to them, and she started to investigate KC to stave off thoughts of going blind. “Everything I do has to do with seeing. I draw blood and check vitals. I even check people’s vision,” she says. “Without my sight, I wouldn’t be able to do what I love.”
She successfully controlled her KC with various contact lenses for more than a decade. “In 2004, I moved to Grand Junction (Colo.) and pretty much put KC on the back burner due to my lack of insurance and the fact that my eyesight really hadn’t changed at all,” she says. “Then one morning, I woke up and, all of a sudden, I couldn’t see anything out of my left eye.”
It was September 2007; a new eye doctor diagnosed her with hydrops and began treatment with steroids. By the middle of October, he told her she’d need to go on the cornea-transplant list if she ever hoped to see again.
She joined a Yahoo! group for people dealing with cornea transplants and asked for help to learn about what she should expect. Members directed her to NKCF and DEF. Having heard many worst-case scenario stories, Wiest was grateful that NKCF provided her with “more medical information — facts, not just hearsay. They offered a more scientific point of view and helped put my mind at ease.”
Wiest underwent a cornea transplant in her left eye on Dec. 28, 2007. Her vision has “held steady” since then — steady enough for her to participate in the Circle of Light Photography Project.
After reading about the project, Wiest began carrying her camera with her everywhere. “My husband and I were walking one day, and he stopped and said to me, ‘Honey, since your transplant, I don’t have to hold your hand so you don’t fall down.’ I hadn’t realized it until that very moment, and as I looked up, I saw my grandmother’s homestead perfectly in view.” That’s when she took the shot that was chosen for the exhibit.
Eric Evans’ exhibit photo is of a sunbeam streaming through a forest. The strength and conditioning coach for Denver’s professional lacrosse team, the Outlaws, Evans took up photography as a hobby about three years ago, becoming sort of an amateur sideline photographer for the team. He’d also grown tired of trying to verbally describe the beauty he’d seen on his many hiking adventures in the mountains of Colorado and wanted to show rather than tell. Moreover, he woke up one day thinking: “I want to visually capture as many things as I possibly can. In the back of my mind, I know that everything I see could be gone in a heartbeat.”
A Las Vegas native, Evans was diagnosed with keratoconus in fall 1989, the year he graduated from high school, during a routine physical. KC didn’t have a strong impact on his life for another six or seven years, when people started noticing how much he was squinting. He got his first set of RGP (rigid gas permeable) lenses, and shortly thereafter went to the gym he’d been frequenting for four years — and the first place he’d worked as a personal trainer. He saw it as if he’d never been there before. “I felt like I’d been blind my whole life and didn’t know it,” he says. “I’d been given sight.”
The deterioration of his sight accelerated in his mid- to late 20s, and it was at a routine appointment that his doctor conferred with colleagues over a topography report of Evans’ eye. “One doctor looked at the screen and said to the other doctor, ‘Does he drive like this?’” Evans recalls. “I thought, ‘I’m sitting right here!’
“It was Tuesday, and the doctor said, ‘I don’t know what you have scheduled for Thursday, but cancel it. You’re having a cornea transplant.’”
Evans’ first transplant, in 2004, worked for about three years until his body rejected it. His doctor told him it was probably because he is actually too healthy. “The healthier you are, the stronger your immune system,” he says. “My immune system is like an army fighting against anything foreign.” Including his new cornea.
In 2008, pain in his eye progressed from feeling as though he always had an eyelash in it to feeling like there was a needle in his eye.
Since his first transplant, he’d relocated to Denver to work for the Outlaws and left his Las Vegas doctor behind. He turned to NKCF to help him find a doctor in Denver. NKCF Executive Director Catherine Warren referred him to Dr. Holly Kent, whom he calls “the best specialist on the face of the planet.”
Evans underwent a second cornea transplant in November 2008. All seemed fine until he woke up one morning this past July realizing, “Something was not right with my vision.” Steroid injections seemed to help, as did Durezol drops. Unfortunately, as a side effect of the treatments, he developed cataracts. He’ll be having surgery to remove them in January 2011, when they’ll find out whether the cornea can still be saved.
In the meantime, Evans is determined to see as much as he can see — and capture it with his camera, something that gives him incredible gratification.
“The exhibit opening was one of the most special nights of my life. Everything kind of came full circle,” he says. “At the gallery, they gave out glasses —similar to 3D glasses — that distort vision, so people could put them on and see the pictures the way they appear to us — so they could see what it’s like for us to see.
“Every one of those pictures was taken by someone who was in the same position as I was — I couldn’t see the world as clearly as other people could. But thanks to the organ donors, I can see it that clearly. How much I appreciate that cannot be put into words.” But, perhaps, it can be put into photographs.
Read an updated story about Eric Evan’s keratoconus experience from January 2011.