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After 15 years, Don O’Neill can see again

This is the picture Don O'Neill's doctor gave him after his corneal transplant. (Don O'Neill)
LISTEN: Don shares his peronal journey from blindness to sight

Click above and listen to Don O’Neill’s journey to sight

A Seattle-based nonprofit is the only global health organization dedicated to eliminating corneal blindness in the U.S. and around the world.

“Your vision starts with your cornea. It is what lets light into your eye to be ultimately processed by your brain,” said Monty Montoya, President and CEO of SightLife.

Thanks to amazing medical advances, surgeons and organizations like Sightlife are making science fiction science fact.

“Here in the U.S. we do about 50,000 cornea transplants a year to restore sight to people. There are about 150,000 transplants worldwide,” Montoya said.

Seattle-based ophthalmology specialist Dr. Walter Rotkis was one of the first to perform the revolutionary procedure in the Northwest and remains one of the nation’s leading eye surgeons.

As we visit in his office high atop Swedish Medical Center, he reflects on decades of delicately replacing a damaged cornea with another from a donor who has recently lost their lives – stitching the tissue with a steady hand while looking through a microscope.

“I don’t think there are many things more powerful than helping somebody else see,” Rotkis said.

They say it’s like seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. That’s exactly how KIRO Radio’s Don O’Neill would describe it.

The radio host began losing his vision over 15 years ago. Until he had gone completely blind in one eye, the world was nothing more than a blur. It affected his sight, his balance, and all facets of his life.

“I never told my mom because she’s a single mom that raised four kids,” Don said. “I knew she would carry it. I never told my best friend Ron who I do my radio show with. I’m a single dad with a 6-year-old. I wanted to get this done sooner, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to carry him. I couldn’t drive at night because I didn’t have depth perception. I never told anyone.”

But now he’s telling everyone. About six weeks ago, Don received the gift of sight, as Dr. Rotkis replaced his failed cornea with a donated one, and for the first time in years Don could see again.

“It’s really a miracle,” Don said as he fought back tears.

The miracle works both ways.

Much like a liver or other critical organ, the corneas come from someone who has died.

Someone like Washington State Patrol trooper Tony Radulesco. Soon after he was gunned down during a traffic stop in Kitsap County back in 2012, his corneas were on their way to Sightlife in Seattle.

His fiancee Gina Miller says Trooper Tony was always looking to do good in life, so there was no hesitation to donate his corneas after his death, regardless of whether he’d checked the organ donation box on his license or not.

“That’s what he did, whether it was military service or law enforcement,” she said.

Just days after he died, two people got their sight back, thanks to his donation – one of them, a nurse.

“I know he would be very honored, and also to find out the woman he gave sight to helps people, is in a public service industry just like he was, he would be very proud and very honored that he was able to do that for her,” she said.

For Vishnu Arunachalam and his family, it was life changing.

Growing up in India, Arunachalam, a Bellevue technology entrepreneur, dreamed of a better life, perhaps working for a company like Microsoft.

“We were taught to dream big,” Arunachalam said. “And I did. I excelled in school and started pursuing my dreams of becoming an engineer and doing much more. I was getting started with what life could be in the future, and then this disaster strikes.”

During his first year of college, he began losing his eyesight. The world getting blurrier everyday. Within months, he was completely blind in one eye, while the other was severely blurred.

He had developed an all-too-common disease that corrupted his corneas – the clear lens that covers our eyes.

“Emotionally, it was very gratifying to finally see the world as it was supposed to be,” he said. “For me, there were a lot of things I didn’t know were really that way because I had forgotten about how they looked. I was able to see my mother’s face and my father’s face clearly.”

“I just hope others can experience what I am,” Don said. “It’s truly miraculous, and I hope so many others can experience the same thing.”

Sightlife is leading the effort. Montoya Monty says there are more than 10 million people afflicted with corneal blindness around the world needing transplants, and the Seattle-based nonprofit is working with global health organizations to both scale its own operations, and help others see the world through new eyes.

And we can all play a part by agreeing to become a donor when our time comes.

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