March 10, 2016 | Organ donation is an incredibly personal and tremendously impactful act of kindness, but Jim Harris already knows that on a profound level.
“Without the generosity of a donor, I would have lost sight in my eye,” said the 53-year-old Rogers resident. “I am grateful my donor was thoughtful enough to make the decision to donate.”
March is Eye Donor Awareness Month. Harris’ donor cornea was provided by the Arkansas Lions Eye Bank & Laboratory at UAMS, which obtains, prepares and delivers eye tissue to transplanting surgeons all over the state and occasionally across the country and around the world.
Harris had experienced problems with his right eye for more than a year before coming to UAMS. His vision became blurred, there was pain from time to time, and his eye would occasionally tear up. Eventually, he was diagnosed with Fuchs’ dystrophy, an eye disease that affects the innermost layer of cells, the endothelium, in the cornea. Over time, the disease causes a person’s vision to worsen.
Even after his diagnosis, Harris continued to deal with the hardships of the disease. However, over time, the symptoms became worse as his eye began to tear up more frequently, and the pain and discomfort were relentless.
“It was like constantly having a grain of sand in your eye,” Harris recalled. “With the irritation, it was hard to concentrate, including at work.”
Harris developed scarring on his cornea that greatly diminished his vision, affecting his ability to drive and his work as executive director of Gift & Estate Planning at the University of Arkansas.
The job required a lot of travel, but his deteriorating vision limited him to driving only during the daytime and on familiar roads.
“It added a layer of difficulty while traveling for work,” said Harris. “If I was in a new city, I had to take a cab, instead of driving.”
That’s when Harris decided it was time to address the problem and was referred by his doctor to Sunali Goyal, M.D., a cornea specialist at the UAMS Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute and assistant professor in the Department of Ophthalmology in the UAMS College of Medicine.
Goyal is the only ophthalmologist at UAMS, and one of a few in the region, to offer the Descemet’s membrane endothelial keratoplasty (DMEK) procedure, an innovative advancement that tends to produce better visual results in a shorter period of time for patients with an eye disease that affects the endothelium.
“Over the past 10 to 15 years we’ve progressively moved from a full transplant of the cornea, which requires a year for full recovery, to a less-invasive, highly specialized procedure where patients can experience results in a month,” said Goyal.
The DMEK procedure is a challenging one, said Goyal, which many surgeons have been reluctant to adopt, due to its learning curve and the difficulty of working with microscopic layers of tissue grafts.
“However, we have enough national data to show that the DMEK procedure is far superior to other procedures,” she said. “It is a complicated procedure, but as patients learn of its results, more surgeons will have to delve in and learn it.”
Harris was amazed by the delicacy of the surgery and the fact Goyal was able to perform it. As far as his results, Harris couldn’t be happier.
“The pain went away immediately, and my vision has vastly improved since the procedure,” he said.
Goyal said Harris’ vision in his right eye is nearly 20/20, compared to 20/50 before the surgery.
As is common with Fuchs’ dystrophy patients, Harris has the disease in his left eye as well, and that will eventually require surgery. Harris is confident that Goyal and her staff will take good care of him.
“I’m at ease now,” he said. “Dr. Goyal and her staff are highly qualified and go out of their way to make the patient comfortable and the outcome successful.”
The Arkansas Lions Eye Bank, established in 1986, has grown to be one of the premier eye banks in the country and is the only one of its kind in Arkansas.
Every year since 2010, the eye bank has collected tissue for about 400 corneal transplants. For more information on eye donation, visit the Arkansas Lions Eye Bank and Laboratory page at http://eye.uams.edu/arkansas-lions-eye-bank-lab/.