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Organ Donation Week: cornea transplant provides the gift of sight

In 2022, aged 15, Kai Cumberland was diagnosed with advanced keratoconus in both eyes, with scarring particularly affecting the vision in his left eye. Under the care of Consultant Ophthalmologist, Mohamed Elalfy, at Maidstone Hospital, Kai had a cornea transplant on his left eye in August to improve his sight.

Kerin Cumberland, Kai’s mother, commented: “Due to Kai’s autism and learning difficulties he wasn’t able to understand or communicate that his sight had deteriorated. Instead he started to withdraw himself from situations he would previously have loved and stopped wanting to go to school, which was completely out of character for him.

“Following a routine eye test, where we thought Kai needed glasses, he was referred for specialist treatment under the care of Mr Elalfy at Maidstone Hospital. Although it is early days for Kai following his surgery, he has already seen a marked improvement in his vision.

“Kai found it very difficult to open his eye straight after the surgery, but just four days post-surgery he managed to open his eye a little, and we then saw daily improvements. Vision started to return to his eye just a few weeks after his operation which was a turning point for Kai – it made the pain and discomfort all worthwhile.”

The immediate recovery period ranges cornea transplant surgery from 2-4 weeks depending on the type of corneal graft used. Careful care of the eye is needed during the recovery process to ensure the best possible outcome following surgery.

Simon Cumberland, Kai’s father, said: “Following surgery Kai has stitches in his eye that will remain in place for 12-18 months. We spent a lot of time indoors over the summer, protecting Kai’s eyes from the sunlight and being careful to prevent any risk of infection and rejection from the donor.

“The summer holidays have been a challenge, but without a doubt, worth it to restore Kai’s sight – something that we thought at one point would be impossible. To see our son happy and smiling again is priceless.”

Kerin added: “The gift of a cornea has given Kai the opportunity to lead a full life and return to his passions in life, that include racing remote control cars, Red Kite spotting in the Brecon Beacons and his love of animals.

“We are hugely grateful to Mr Elalfy and the amazing team at Maidstone Hospital for the treatment and care that Kai has received, particularly the support provided to support Kai’s autism and learning difficulties to ensure he was calm and settled.

“We will be forever grateful to the donor and the Ophthalmology team at the Trust for giving Kai the gift of sight”.

Consultant Ophthalmologist, Mohamed Elalfy added: “It is extremely rewarding when we get to see how life changing these surgeries are for our patients.

“I encourage everyone who has the will to make a difference, to join the NHS Organ Donor Register and help other people in need see well throughout their life.”

Once the left eye has healed sufficiently, Kai will need to undergo treatment for his right eye. This will involve corneal cross-linking to prevent the keratoconus condition having a detrimental effect on the sight in his right eye, followed by a prescription contact lens to ensure the best possible outcome.

During Organ Donation Week (26 September – 2 October 2022) NHS Blood and Transplant is encouraging people to consider giving the gift of sight, due to the urgent need for more cornea donors.

A cornea transplant (also referred to as a corneal graft) can be used to improve sight, relieve pain and treat severe infection or damage. Almost anyone can donate their corneas. The cornea is the clear tissue at the front of your eye that lets in light so you can see. This small and simple part of the eye is hugely important for thousands of cornea transplants a year, often saving the sight of patients for many years.

Yet one in 10 people on the NHS Organ Donor Register have indicated that they do not wish to donate their corneas, making corneas the part of the body that most people say they do not wish to donate.

As at 21 September 2022, there were 208 corneas in NHS Blood and Transplant’s eye banks. The aim is to have 350 corneas available at any one time to supply to hospitals. Currently, potential cornea recipients are currently having to endure a longer wait to have their sight restored or their condition improved.