Almost 63 years ago, LIFE magazine featured a story about successful corneal transplant surgeries in its issue of July 15, 1946. One of the recipients was Sid Sklar, and this is his story.
It was the early 1940’s. Sid, a young man of 15, had been having vision problems for two years, and by this time he could not see at all. Doctors in Philadelphia, where he lived with his family, were unable to diagnose his eye condition. As a last hope, he was referred to Doctor Ramon Castroviejo at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. Dr. Castroviejo was THE DOCTOR who perfected the technique of corneal transplantation.
Sid was notified that the doctor would see him to determine if he was a good candidate for this experimental operation. The appointment was scheduled for September 16, 1941. Castroviejo diagnosed Sid’s problem as “keratoconus” – a condition not well known in those days. According to Sid, “he agreed to take me as a patient, but said I would have to understand that this procedure was still in an experimental stage. He added that he felt I had nothing to lose and everything to gain if it worked, since I had already lost my vision. We (my parents and I) agreed with him. He then explained that the surgery could not be done until a fresh donor graft was available. He advised us to go home, pack a bag, and be ready to come back as soon as we were notified that he had the graft.”
As it turned out, things happened much faster than expected. On the very same evening of that initial appointment, his parents got a call from the hospital. The cornea of a stillborn baby had become available. They were to return to New York City the very next day.
Time was of the essence. In 1941, there was no such thing as a preservative for the donated cornea; nor was there an eye-bank to store donated tissue.
The operation was performed under local anesthesia. Sid recalls, “I remember lying there, listening to the doctor describe exactly what he was doing to a large group of international doctors who were present for the procedure. Since I had no vision, there was a gray nothing. As he removed the damaged cornea, everything became a velvet black. He prepared the square graft by measuring the opening and applied it. I couldn’t believe it: suddenly, I could see my doctor’s face with his surgical mask, and another doctor wearing a turban!”
This experimental procedure took approximately two-and-a-half hours; however, for Sid it seemed like forever. In those days, a pressure bandage was applied to immobilize the eye. It was kept in place with tape heated by Bunson burner to make it stick. (There was no adhesive tape in 1941!) Sandbags were placed around his head to keep it immobilized. Sid was confined to bed for about two and half weeks.
According to Sid, “when the pressure bandages were removed for the doctor to examine my eye, the experience was almost impossible to describe. I could seethe furniture in the room, the lights, the doctors and the nurses standing around the bed. Everything had a red tint to it, but I could see everything clearly.”
Prior to his leaving the hospital almost three months after surgery, the stitches were removed from Sid’s eye. This was on December 8, 1941 – the day after Pearl Harbor. Sid remembers that “as we were leaving the city we stopped on the New York side of the Holland Tunnel to listen to the car radio. President Roosevelt was addressing Congress, asking its members to declare war on Japan!”
Sid returned to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital two weeks later for a follow-up examination and was told that “everything was perfect.” The redness had disappeared; his vision was improving dramatically; and the doctor and all of his associates were ecstatic. The doctor had taken pictures of his left eye with the new square graft.
These were the pictures featured in LIFE magazine, July 15, 1946.
In 1942 and 1944, corneal transplants were attempted on Sid’s other eye. Dr. Castroviejo followed the same procedure, but each time his body rejected the new graft. Sid recalls “today, anti-rejection drugs are available, but there was nothing of the kind available then. When they said rejection, that was it!” In 1946, he returned to New York City for a third corneal transplant on his right eye. This time the operation was a success: the cornea held and did not reject.
Sixty-seven years later, Sid Sklar continues to have 20/20 vision in his left eye. He begins each day with the words, “Thank You, Baby.” The story is told that after he was married, his wife Terry thought he was referring to her. One day, she asked him why he only calls her “baby” in the morning. Sid explained to her that he was not thanking her; he was thanking the stillborn baby that made the miracle of his restored vision possible.
Sid still lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Terry. He is a member of the NKCF’s Outreach Program, as well as, the National Ambassadors for Cornea Transplant, a support and education group for cornea recipients.
AND TODAY…(Editor’s Comments) The comparison between this early experimental procedure and today’s modern technique is like night and day. Today’s cornea recipients benefit from vastly improved surgical technology. No longer is rejection a critical issue; the corneal transplant surgery success rate is 90% or better! What once required a lengthy hospital stay of up to several months is now done as an outpatient procedure. Because of the increased number of corneas donated, long anxious waits are now almost a thing of the past.
The square graft Sid Sklar received back in 1941, reported to have been the first successful cornea transplant, is still in place and clear! And, he remains mindful of the gift of sight he was fortunate to regain. He is also keenly aware of the crucial importance of the availability of graft tissue needed for this procedure. And, finally, all keratoconus patients should be grateful for the pioneering work of Dr. Castroviejo and the availability of Sid Sklar as the subject of this early experimental success.
Read the NKCF’s ten year follow up story about Sid here.