Houston-area family meets their loved one’s cornea recipient virtually
April 17, 2021-
FREEPORT, Texas – A special story of tragedy and triumph after a man in Freeport lost his life but was able to give the gift of sight to a mom in Florida. We got to witness the moment when the two families met virtually.
It was all made possible by CorneaGen, which helped pull off the corneal transplant.
The President of CorneaGen, Bernie Iliakis, first started by introducing the families. He had encouraged them to write each other. It usually ends at that, but they took this one step further after both families showed interest in meeting.
Emotional moments for both families as the Tichacek’s from Freeport look into Kelly Bennett’s eyes for the first time, after their loving 32-year son and brother suddenly lost his life from a heart attack but had signed up to be an organ donor. His cornea was able to save Kelly’s eyesight.
“Thank you guys so much for meeting with me. I’m so happy to get this opportunity to meet. I know not many people get this, and there truly are not even enough things I can say about how thankful I am for the donation and also to get to meet with you and to learn more about him,” states Kelly.
“I’m very glad and grateful that even after my brother not being here was able to help you, because that is one thing that he would do, is give you the shirt off his back,” says Trey’s brother, Mark.
“Seeing you, knowing who Trey is and seeing his picture, is so meaningful to me. It makes me feel even more grateful about it,” states Kelly.
Kelly is a lawyer and was a busy mother of three when the unthinkable happened to her eye.
“Two Decembers ago, I essentially had an eye infection. But it’s an amoeba, that a lot of times you would find in freshwater. It’s even in tap water, so somehow I contracted it. It basically gets in your eye and eats away at the cornea and it’s very, very rare,” explains Kelly.
Her doctor also joined the special meeting to share more about the transplant, as she was able to work between CorneaGen and Lions Eye Bank of Texas to make it happen.
“Kelly’s cornea had a big scar right in the center, which was essentially causing her to not see anything out of that eye. So what I did is punch a circular hole in Kelly’s cornea to remove the scar, and then I punched the same size hole in the donor cornea and I stitched it in place,” explains Dr. Helayna Brown.
Before the transplant, Kelly says she was miserable and could barely function.
“I was on this bucket of prescription pain medications, I was on eye drops 24 hours a day, multiple pain medications and it didn’t touch the pain, so a very awful sickness. That really is not just an eye sickness, but a whole-body sickness, where I couldn’t be out, I couldn’t be in the light. I had to be in a dark room. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t eventually see out of the eye. I was nauseous and sick for almost an entire year before I got the transplant,” exclaims Kelly.
Trey’s gift of a cornea changed everything. She says it truly gave her life back! She had plenty of questions for the Tichacek’s and found out everything from Trey’s favorite artists – Merle Haggard and Kid Rock – to how he loved karaoke, BBQ, and travel. Kelly’s entire family is eternally grateful.
“It’s difficult to describe how grateful we are, but as her husband, this was awful to go through for us, so thank you a million times over. We can never thank you enough,” says Tony.
We were able to talk to each family after that momentous meeting.
“I’d say it was emotional for sure! Because of my brother, she’s looking back at me, so I guess in a sense it’s my brother looking at me. I know that there’s somebody that can see because of him and it’s kind of like he’s still getting to see things through someone else’s eyes. So just a way to remind us that he’s still here with us,” states Mark.
Since Trey didn’t get to fulfill his dream of one day having children, the Tichacek’s say it comforts them knowing Kelly gets to see her own kids through his sight. Kelly recalls the first time she could see her son again, as he played games with her for months, holding up his fingers, to see if she could see them.
“I could see his face, I could see his fingers, and it was just the most beautiful thing to be able to look through that eye and to see him,” smiles Kelly. She says he just couldn’t believe it!
Kelly’s doctor took time to reassure the Tichacek’s that Trey’s gift of sight went to the right person.
“I’ve been working closely with Kelly while treating her and have really gotten to know her. I hope it’s comforting to you guys to know that Kelly couldn’t be more deserving of Trey’s cornea. She was never worried about herself. She was always worried about how she was going to take care of her family and her kids. I hope you guys know that you couldn’t have had a better person receive Trey’s cornea,” states Dr. Brown.
The Tichacek’s definitely thanked her for that comment. Both families agree, this was a healing connection. The families do plan to stay in touch and even talked about meeting in person.
Almost 60,000 corneas were transplanted last year, but more are always needed, as 100,000 people are on a waiting list for all types of organs.
It’s organ transplant awareness month. If you’d like to learn more about it: https://www.donatelife.net
October 5, 2020
Geoff is an active guy who always seems to be running. Whether he’s running a marathon or one of his many business ventures, he’s always moving and doesn’t know how to sit still. A bout with Shingles in his 40’s barely slowed him down, but while the lesion’s on his skin faded, the virus continued to damage and degrade the layers of his cornea in his left eye; causing corneal thinning and scarring.
As his vision began to fade he had to give up on many of the activities he’s always enjoyed, like skiing and back country trail running because he couldn’t see the terrain clearly. He likened his vision to looking through a layer of Vaseline on his eye. A series of infections and a rapidly growing cataract accelerated his need for a cornea transplant.
Geoff received his new cornea thanks to the anonymous donation made possible by a family shortly after their loved one’s passing. The cornea he needed to restore his sight was ready and available for him when he needed it most
and has restored his vision and given him back the opportunity to keep running forward.
Geoff and his family are profoundly aware of the sacrifice the donor and their family have made to make his life so much better, and are determined to pay it forward as an organ and tissue donor when their times come.
“I would like to thank the donor and the donor’s family for having the foresight to realize they could impact someone else’s life through the simple act of donation. Both my wife and I hope to be organ and tissue donors so that we too may be able to help someone someday.”
October 5, 2020
How does a professional dancer continue to work without his eyesight? A dancer since the age of 16, Thomas has spent a lifetime on the stage. He’s was a part of the first national tour of Cats, performing 8 shows a week across the country and continued his career in dance and choreography touring throughout Europe and Asia for almost 28 years. Currently he is a professor of Dance at University of Southern California Kaufman School of Dance in Los Angeles, teaching the next generation of dancers.
During one of his trips between Barcelona and Berlin, Thomas contracted a fungus that settled in his left eye — attacking his cornea and causing severe irritation and cloudy, blurred vision within a short period of time. He was hospitalized for over a month as the highly contagious fungus mutated and endured months of procedures and medications to stabilize his vision.
Thomas received a new cornea and lens to restore his vision and give him back a chance to dance, and teach, again. His corneal transplant was made possible because an anonymous donor and their family said “Yes to donation” at the end of their life.
Thomas is extremely grateful to his donor and their family for their generous Gift of Sight. “The transformative power of cornea donation is so powerful. No doctor can give you this sort of thing, this was given from a person who was so generous. It has transformed my life.”
October 5, 2020
Christine is a busy mother of two and a dedicated high school English teacher, directing her school’s internship program for students to gain hands-on and practical experience for transition to college or beyond. She’s a self professed “Zumba Junkie” and enjoys spending time outdoors with her newly adopted rescue dog Sassy. She’s used to going full steam ahead, until she began noticing pain and loss of vision clarity when transitioning to and from direct sunlight.
For Christine, the change in her vision came at a time when she wasn’t sleeping well at night and as she didn’t have a history of vision issues, she tolerated the problem for some time before seeing an ophthalmologist. Her doctor discovered she had Fuch’s Dystrophy and the cells in her corneas were so swollen and crowded she would need emergency laser surgery in her left eye to reduce the pressure and save her sight. Cataracts added to her vision problem, and the trauma to her corneas removing them, led to the need for an immediate cornea transplant in her left eye.
Christine received the transplant using corneal tissue recovered from a donor shortly after their passing. This new cornea has allowed Christine to return to her active lifestyle with better vision and no pain. Eventually, she will have a second surgery on her right eye, but for now her vision and quality of life has improved dramatically.
As Christine puts it: “This surgery is really symbolic to me—I’m really seeing the world through different eyes and I’m so very thankful for the kindness of the donor and their family in making my Gift of Sight possible.”
October 5, 2020
Larry has a gusto and a singular vision for life! A self-proclaimed Army brat and Air Force veteran, Larry has lived a life full of adventure and hard work with his wife of 60 years always by his side. After leaving the Air Force, he worked his way up the ladder with General Electric, retiring at the executive level only to go back to work with three more companies to stave off boredom and complacency. He loves to tinker and fix things and works out six days a week, putting others half his age to shame.
When Larry started noticing changes in his vision, he acted quickly to make sure he could continue to lead the life he loved. Diagnosed with Fuch’s Dystrophy, an eye disorder that causes the cells in the cornea to sluff off and die, Larry had his first cornea transplant in his left eye in 2015 and another in his right in 2020 to restore his vision and keep him active.
Each time he needed it, a donated cornea was available for him, thanks to the generosity and kindness of anonymous donors after their passing. Larry’s physician was able to choose a tissue that was exactly right for Larry and now he’s enjoying his active life once more.
“To me this is such a blessing . I’m full of gratitude and appreciation, and just so thankful that my donors were willing to do this for me. Had that person who died not done this, I would probably have gone blind and my life would have been completely different.”
October 5, 2020
Lisa lives in the stunning Aspen valley and leads an extremely active lifestyle. She teaches science and physical education at an experiential learning school, spent many years as a wilderness guide with the forest service and conducts a youth adventure camp, mountain biking, climbing and hiking with kids throughout the summer.
Lisa began experiencing light sensitivity in one eye and her doctor’s discovered she had contracted a rare parasite in her eye. The invasion lead to extreme pain, cornea scarring and complete blindness in one eye in a matter of months.
Lisa endured eye scraping procedures, painful eye drops and months of uncertainty and depression before receiving a new lease on life through a cornea transplant. A few days before her surgery, an anonymous donor’s family said Yes to cornea donation at their loved one’s passing — Lisa received that person’s cornea.
Within a month of her transplant, Lisa was seeing again and all the pain she endured was gone. Now her vision is better than it has ever been and she has returned to the life she loves.
“I go outside every night to look at the stars and marvel in their beauty. I am so much more aware of the importance of sight and not taking it for granted. I give thanks every day for the donation that has changed my life and enabled me to continue doing the things I love.”