Corneal transplants save Georgia woman's vision

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Harriett Wharton loves knitting, but 3 years ago, the 72-year old Grayson, Georgia, mother and grandmother noticed it was getting harder to see what she was doing, especially early in the morning.

"It doesn't hurt at all," Wharton says.  "It's just causes this hazy blurriness. It gets better as the day progresses."

Wharton was diagnosed with cataracts and a common hereditary eye disease known as Fuchs' dystrophy.

Dr. Barry Lee, a corneal specialist and ophthalmologist with Eye Consultants of Atlanta, says Fuchs' causes the cells in the back of the cornea to gradually die off.

"The biggest thing is cloudy vision," Dr. Lee says.  "It's usually most cloudy right in the morning when they wake up. You can also have glaring late at night. That's tricky because cataracts also can cause night glare."

Lee, who serves as medical director of the Georgia Eye Bank, says doctors sometimes miss Fuchs' dystrophy when diagnosing cataracts.

"So, probably the most common presentation is, 'I had cataract surgery and it made my vision worse,'" Dr. Lee says. "And, we look at the cornea and, sure enough, there is Fuchs' dystrophy in the cornea."

Wharton had both problems. 

She chose to undergo cataract surgery first, to replace her cloudy lenses.

"My vision was better for a little while but then I knew the Fuchs' was really causing me problems," she says. "And, I knew that when I would drive that, sometimes, I was struggling, especially if the light was wrong."

Because Wharton does a lot of the driving for her husband Wally, she needed to see clearly.

So, she chose to undergo partial corneal transplants in both eyes, using eye tissue donated anonymously to the Georgia Eye Bank.

"Because of the Eye Bank, they have the tissue, and you don't have to be on a waiting list," Wharton says. "I wondered about that, too."

Unlike organ transplants, where the donor and recipient have to be very carefully matched, healthy corneal tissue can be shared with almost anyone.

For Wharton, the transplants, done about 6 months apart, were a game changer.

"I don't need glasses, I don't even need glasses for reading, except if something is really small," Wharton says. 

Her eye doctor recently told Wharton she has 20/20 distance vision.

"I don't even need glasses for driving," she says.

Harriet Wharton feels grateful someone chose to donate their eyes after their death, a gift that saved her vision.

"I knew about corneal transplant because my husband had a liver transplant 12 years ago," she says.  " I think it's extremely important, because it's given him a whole new life and it has very, very much improved my life."