Fifteen-year-old Emily Martin of Metolius may have gone blind if not for a routine school eye exam, combined with a new laser surgery procedure.
On Dec. 11, Emily became the 15th person in the Northwest to undergo cornea transplant surgery called IntraLase-Enabled Keratoplasty, which heals twice as fast as a traditional cornea transplant.
Emily's mom, Robin Martin said her daughter's eye problem was discovered last spring during a regular vision check at Jefferson County Middle School, where she was an eighth-grader in the Maureen Adams' life skills class. The school advised her to have Emily checked by an eye doctor.
"I had noticed that she looked a little off with her eye, but didn't think much about it," Robin admitted.
Soon after, they had an appointment with William R. Woodman, O.D., in Bend, who said he suspected Emily had "keratoconus," a hereditary disease that affects and damages the cornea of the eye, making it distorted.
He referred them to Dr. Oli Traustason of the Eye Surgery Institute in Redmond, who confirmed that Emily was legally blind in her right eye.
"I started to cry," Robin said, "But Dr. Oli told me `A lot of people get by with one eye. The only thing they can't do is fly a plane.'"
But then he told them there was a 90 percent chance that the condition would eventually affect the left eye also, leaving Emily totally blind.
A cornea transplant at Oregon Health Science University's Casey Eye Institute was the only way to restore vision to Emily's left eye, but the chances of being accepted weren't good.
"We were praying and praying about it because he said they usually won't do a transplant unless both eyes are affected," Robin said. In the meantime, Emily had begun having headaches.
Expecting the worst, when they took Emily for an evaluation at Casey Eye Institute in Portland, Robin said, "We were really surprised when we went to see Dr. William Mathers and he asked us how soon we wanted to do the transplant. We said as soon as possible."
It turned out, the Casey Institute had just gotten new state-of-the-art equipment which uses a computer-guided laser to cut away the patient's diseased cornea in a specific pattern.
"The donor tissue bank has the same machine (laser) that cuts the good cornea out with the same pattern, so that it fits together like a puzzle (into the old cornea's spot)," Robin explained.
The more precise fit is safer and the cornea transplant heals in six months instead of 12 months under the old method.
With her surgery scheduled for Dec. 11, Emily, her dad D'Wayne Martin and her mom arrived for a three-day stay at the Ronald McDonald House on "hospital hill" near OHSU. Because her dad's work at Wilbur-Ellis in Madras is seasonal, and winter is the off-season, their family qualified for Oregon Health Plan services. One benefit was they got to stay at the Ronald McDonald House for free. Normally, it costs $20 per day.
Robin described the three-story house as, "Awesome, really, really cool. It was plain on the outside, but you go in and it's like a wonderland in there. I ate so many Christmas cookies, because people donate things. A church came to make breakfast and a hotel made dinner one night."
Emily agreed, "It was cool. They had a cool baby room and gave me a quilt and a journal."
It was kind of funny, her mom said, because Emily got two stuffed toys and two blankets from different people during her hospital stay, and all of them coincidentally were bright green.
The day of the surgery they arrived at 6:25 a.m., and the elevator right after theirs brought a box labeled "Human Eye Tissue." Robin said it gave her an eerie feeling, but she snapped a picture anyway.
The cornea transplant was done in two parts by Dr. Mathers and his surgical team. Emily had to stay awake and keep very still for the first part, in which the diseased cornea was removed.
Robin remembered the care from Dr. Mathers' nurse Jill and a technical named Nick. "They were all very nice and caring, compassionate people. Nick held Emily's hand during the first surgery," she said.
The second part of the surgery, done under general anesthesia, took 1 1/2 hours. Afterwards, with her right eye completely bandaged over, Emily was able to recover at the Ronald McDonald House.
"When we came back for an exam the day after, she could see the charts on the wall with her right eye," her mother said.
For the next six months, Emily has to wear safety glasses to protect her eye while the new cornea heals.
Because there is always a chance of infection or rejection, she has to have eye drops put in four to five times a day, and they sting.
"We're grateful to the donor even though we don't know who it was. I'm signed up as a donor myself," Robin noted.
With the surgery and all her eye appointments, Emily is eager to return to her Madras High School classes after a month off. She said she likes drawing and writing in class, and at home she likes to clean house and help her mom who does day care for youngsters.
Emily is the youngest in a family of six, including Steven Norton, a pilot for Continental; Kalei Kadau, a nurse at the Portland Veterans Hospital; Nicole Kadau, a student at Oregon State University; Tawny Martin, who's attending Western Culinary Institute in Portland; and John Martin, 16, who is a student at MHS.
With her daughter's sight restored, Robin said, "I feel like it was a miracle, the way everything just fell into place."
The cost for the surgery is $13,000 per eye. Some will be covered by their insurance, some by the OHP card, and because Emily is mildly developmentally disabled she qualified for Social Security funds.
"Between our insurance, the card and all, we're hoping it will be paid for completely," Robin said, adding of her daughter's surgery, "It was an awesome Christmas present."