Transplant recipients share reborn eyesight through photography
Photos reflect renewed visions
If you were blind and an operation restored your eyesight, and you then were given a camera and asked to photograph what you were most grateful to see again, what would your lens capture?
Eric Evans of Denver took a picture of a sunbeam penetrating a forest canopy in Montreal. Karen Wiest photographed her grandparents' homestead near Meeker. And Robin McKenna? The Colorado Springs resident couldn't stop at one picture, recording images of Mount Princeton, the Garden of the Gods and an aspen grove.
They are among two dozen people who have received cornea transplants from Colorado and Wyoming donors. The three responded to a challenge by the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Bank: Take a photo that means something to you and send us
the image for a "Circle of Light" exhibit.
Their work is on exhibit at the Artwork Network Gallery, 878 Santa Fe Drive. The 25 photos were selected by professional photographers from more than 150 submissions.
But the honor of being chosen pales next to having their vision returned.
"I don't even know if I can put into words what it means to have my eyesight back," says Evans, 38, of Denver. "It's a kind of happiness and joy you can't explain."
Evans, the strength and conditioning specialist for the Outlaws, Denver's major-league lacrosse team, has undergone two cornea transplants on his left eye. He suffered from keratoconus, a degenerative disease that distorts the cornea and affects about one person in 1,000.
The first transplant, in 2004, was ultimately rejected by his body. Two years ago he had another. So far, so good.
"Now I feel I can see the world pretty close to the way the rest of the world sees it," he says. "I tended to start paying attention to things around me in a way I hadn't before."
Evans has turned into a die-hard camera buff. "I'll take a photo 15 times to get it right," he says. "Before it was like, 'Eh, good enough.' "
He used a Kodak Z1485
handheld digital camera to take his photograph, which was captured in 2009 on a woodlands walk in Montreal's Mount Royale Park. He was in Canada to compete as a weightlifter in the Pan-Am Games.
"There was this beautiful place where a ray of light was just coming through the trees," Evans says. "I'm a really spiritual, religious person, and it just spoke to me."
Evans is one of about 600 people in Colorado and Wyoming who receive sight-restorative corneal transplants each year, according to Robert Austin of the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Bank. The cornea is the clear front part of the eye covering the pupil and iris. With the lens, it accounts for two-thirds of the eye's optical power. Corneal blindness accounts for about 10 percent of all blindness.
Karen Wiest of Grand Junction also needed a cornea transplant because of a bout with keratoconus that ruined her left eye. The resulting lack of depth perception interfered with her job as a medical assistant, plus other tasks such as driving and deer and elk hunting, a pursuit she enjoys.
Three years ago she got her transplant.
"It basically gave me my life back," says Wiest, 39. "After my transplant I noticed that colors were a lot more vivid than they'd been in several years."
Her photograph in the exhibit was taken in the Blue Mountains beyond Meeker. The house in the photo was where her mother spent her girlhood; it was built by her homesteading grandparents.
the photo in the spring, soon after her eye operation, using a small digital Nikon. "It meant a lot to be able to record an image for my kids of a part of my family's history," she says.
Before Robin McKenna's cornea transplant, the Colorado Springs resident was virtually blind in both eyes. Fuch's corneal dystrophy, a genetic disorder, left her with 2 0/110 vision. "And that was on a good day," says the registered nurse in Colorado Springs.
"I really couldn't be a functioning nurse and was relegated to administrative work," she says. "It was so debilitating."
McKenna had never really used a camera much before her operation, despite the fact that her dad is a professional photographer back in her native Missouri. Now she's an enthusiastic user of her Canon camera. "It's a real passion," she says.
"Getting my vision back was a humongous thing. It was really overwhelming to receive someone else's eye tissue," McKenna says. "You're so grateful for the gift, but you also feel guilt because they had to die before they could be donors. How can you ever repay anyone for that gift?"
McKenna just hopes to pay it forward.
"Because of my new corneas I can move on and help other people," she says.
William Porter: 303-954-1877 email@example.com
Facts about giving the gift of vision
About 600 people in Colorado and Wyoming receive sight-restoring cornea transplants each year. If you have ever considered donating your corneas to this cause, here is some basic information about the transplants courtesy of the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Bank, which has facilitated more than 30,000 transplants since 1982.
• Good eyesight is not a requirement to donate. In fact, some eye donors have been legally blind.
• Old age and poor health do not always preclude someone from being a donor. At the time of death, an evaluation is performed to determine if someone is medically eligible to donate.
• It costs families nothing to donate their loved one's eye tissue, or to make any other anatomical gift.
• The option to have an open casket viewing or funeral is still available to families of donors. If a family chose not to tell others their loved one was a donor, no one would know by looking.
• There are no organized religions that forbid eye, organ or tissue donation.
You can become a donor by joining the Donate Life Colorado Organ & Tissue Donor Registry at the time of driver's license renewal. You may also join by visiting donatelifecolorado.org.
Circle of Light exhibit
Where:Artwork Network Gallery, 878 Santa Fe Drive.
What:25 photographs taken by people whose eyesight was restored through cornea transplants.
When: Through Nov. 23. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday; noon-4 p.m. Saturday.
More info: 303-388-7420 or artworknetwork.com