Cornea transplant helps local man see clearly again

Craig Gillespie of Morris was always good about getting his regular eye exams. Unlike many people, he made an effort to go in once a year. Not because he was worried about his eyes but because he needed to wear safety glasses for work and had to do that through regular exams.

Craig is a welder so safety glasses are important for his job. In October of 2017 he went to Midwest Vision Center for that exam. The doctor knew something was wrong immediately and Craig admitted that he was having some pain and blurry vision. The doctor said he thought it was Fuchs’ Dystrophy and referred him to Dr. Dvorack who visits the Morris clinic regularly.

Dr. Dvorack confirmed the diagnosis and started treatment with various types of eye drops.  The disease is usually considered hereditary but Craig said no one else in his family has it. When it came time to renew his driver’s license, Craig had some concerns. He passed the eye test but things were getting worse. Dr. Dvorack decided it was time to refer him to the Minnesota Eye Institute.

Craig and his wife, Gwen and three daughters Amanda, Nicole and Julia, thought it was time to learn more about the disease. Fuchs’ dystrophy is a disease of the cornea. It is when cells in the corneal layer called the endothelium gradually die off. These cells normally pump fluid from the cornea to keep it clear. When they die, fluid builds up and the cornea gets swollen and puffy. Vision becomes cloudy or hazy.

Fuchs’ dystrophy has two stages. In the early stage (stage 1), vision is usually hazy in the morning. With the later stage 2, vision remains blurry all day.

People in their 30s and 40s may have Fuchs’ dystrophy but do not know it. Vision problems might not appear until age 50 or later. Women are more likely than men to have Fuchs’ dystrophy. Family history of Fuchs’ dystrophy also increases your risk of developing it.

Craig began to see Dr. Hardtin at the Minnesota Eye Institute. Dr. Hardtin started to talk to him about a cornea transplant. When the time came, he explained that they would only do one eye at a time. The surgery would replace the diseased cornea membrane with healthy corneal tissue from an organ donor.

Craig was scheduled for his first surgery on March 20, 2020. But then Covid hit and all non-emergency surgeries were put on hold. After waiting a few months, the surgery was rescheduled for June 5, 2020. However, there would be a lot of Covid protocols in place.

Nicole was recently out of high school and became the designated driver for the surgery and follow up visits. She stated that she learned very quickly how to drive in the cities. The Minnesota Eye Institute is located in Minnetonka so it was a little easier to get to.

Craig was comfortable to have the surgery knowing that the alternative would be blindness. Even though there are always risks of things going wrong, he decided to go forward with the cornea transplants.

During the surgery Craig was semi awake. He could see what was going on but did not feel it. He would be in and out of sleep. The surgery took about two hours to remove the diseased cornea and replace it with the donated cornea. 

Nicole and Gwen sat in the car in the parking lot during this time. They were contacted when the surgery was done and he could go home. Since there was a follow up visit the next day, they stayed in a hotel that night.  At the hotel, Craig had to lay flat on his back for 24 hours and return for an after care visit.

He also had follow ups after three days, one week and then three weeks. At one of these visits the stitches were removed which wasn’t a pleasant procedure. He had to wear dark glasses but the eye was not patched. He could not return to work for 30 days.

Usually they recommend waiting six months for the second transplant so they were surprised when the next eye transplant was set for August 10. The same protocols were still in place so the family waited in the car again. In one of the after visits, Craig learned that he received new corneas from one male and one female. Craig was able to send a thank you card to each of the donor’s families. He continues to use some eye drops, mostly saline, and returns for regular check ups.

The transplant corneas were coordinated through LifeSource, an organization that talks to families of donors and accompanies organs that are donated. Nicole, who was planning to go into nursing, is now thinking more toward organ donation care. She loves the healthcare field and is now familiar with some of the  subjects and classes referring to eye disease and the donor process. 

The family has also been contacted by the Lions organization in the Gift of Sight program. Nicole has promoted this through social media and did a video talk in the cities at a banquet for donor families. 

“We appreciate the donors,” stated Craig and Gwen. “If people don’t donate, things like this would not happen.” Craig could not imagine not being able to watch his daughters graduate, compete and even some day get married and have children. 

The disease itself was scary enough but throwing in Covid was definitely a challenge. Covid and cornea transplants don’t mix but Craig and his family found a way to make it work.