Imagine sitting in your living room enjoying your favorite television show, when suddenly your eye sight goes fuzzy and your cornea splits in two. That's right, the transparent layer forming the front part of your eye separates without warning.
Two years ago, that scenario happened to Sandra Matkowski out of nowhere in her Central Florida home.
Thirty years ago, Matkowski was prescribed contact lenses that were not properly fitted to her eye. Wearing the ill-fitting lenses resulted in an eventual scarring on her eye that affected not only her vision, but her quality of life.
"I had such a scar that when I looked out of my eye, it looked like there was a ghost right in the center of my vision and I had that for 30 years of my life," Matkowski said.
The scar was repaired at the time, but she was told by the doctor that it could open back up at any time. Thirty years later, the scar on her cornea reopened while she was watching television.
"It actually felt as if you had an eyelash or something in your eye," Matkowski said. "My biggest fear was it becoming infected."
After months of a local doctor unsuccessfully trying to close the scar, Matkowski decided to do some research of her own. She knew that the scar tissue was so thick that it would be difficult to close the wound. After reading several stories of successful corneal transplants, she decided to reach out to Dr. Rafael Trespalacios, a UCF alumnus and professor.
Trespalacios is a board-certified ophthalmologist at Central Florida's Medical City Eye Center. Among other degrees, he received a Bachelor of Science in biology and microbiology from UCF and is also an associate professor at the university. Trespalacios agreed to see Matkowski and after evaluating the depth of the scar, determined that a corneal transplant would be the best option.
A corneal transplant is an invasive surgical procedure that replaces the recipient's cornea with one from a donor. He was the fifth doctor in the world and the first in Central Florida to perform a laser-enabled keratoplasty, otherwise known as a bladeless corneal transplant.
Corneal transplants have traditionally been done with a blade that makes a cookie-cutter incision on the cornea, but using a laser instead of a blade allows the doctor to make a contoured incision that will hold better and heal faster. He does about 40 of these transplants per year, but only if absolutely necessary.
"You want to do the most that you can for somebody in the least invasive way. If there is a less invasive option than doing a transplant for somebody, that's the route that I'm going to take," Trespalacios said. "What makes them a good candidate is if it's affecting the quality of their life."
According to a six-month study by the Eye Bank Association of America, corneal transplants performed in the United States in 2013 will result in almost $6 billion in benefits over the lifetime of the recipients.
That study compared medical costs of a transplant with the direct and indirect lifetime cost of the alternative, which could include living with blindness or severely impaired vision. Although the procedure can save the recipient money in the long run, it would take Matkowski a while to save the money necessary for the surgery.
Trespalacios decided they would go ahead and do the procedure anyway.
"Every year we do something called the gift of sight, where we find a patient that can benefit from one of the procedures that I specialize in," Trespalacios said. "It's usually not something run-of-the-mill, like a cataract; it's usually a procedure that someone would need to come and see me for because I am one of the few people who is able to do it, but they just can't afford it."
The surgery was a huge success and Matkowski couldn't be happier.
"I can see better now than at any point in my life," she said. "After it was done, people didn't even know anything was done to my eye. There wasn't any bruising and they weren't even bloodshot."
Trespalacios said it is important to remember that transplants like these would not be possible without donors.
"Organ donation is important because there are over 100,000 people in the United States waiting for a life-saving organ transplant," said UCF alumnus Juan Guerrero, who has done about 200 donor corneal recoveries for Tissue Bank International's Central Florida branch. "The demand for organs simply outweighs the supply. Every year more than 6,000 people will die while waiting for an organ transplant."
Those interested in becoming an organ, tissue or eye donor can sign up at www.DonateLifeFlorida.org.