Seeing the world through Debbie’s eyes

Meet Debbie Cragg. Now in her mid 50’s, Debbie has a bubbly artistic personality and is an avid adventure seeker. Born and raised in Three Rivers, Vereeniging, her dream to be a creative graphic designer was shattered when she was diagnosed with bilateral keratoconus at the age of 16.

Her journey to restored sight started when she had her first corneal transplant three years later at the age of 19, and continued until 2017, with her final surgery. Debbie loves photography and nature walks with her Dachshund Bella – the love of her life.  Through Debbie’s lens, we hope you will be reminded that the gift of sight is a priceless one.

Keratoconus is a vision disorder that occurs when the normally round cornea (the front part of the eye) becomes thin, and irregular (cone) shaped. This abnormal shape prevents the light entering the eye from being focused correctly on the retina and causes distortion of vision.  The disorder reduces visual accuracy, distorts image perception, and results in a gradual loss of vision.

Anatomy of the human eye

Debbie had to live with the daily challenges of keratoconus such as limited driving capability, and a constant cloudy vision. Simply reading the words on a page became difficult. As her sight continued to deteriorate, her graphic design career took strain. It became impossible to do anything that required accurate sight, such as measuring, cutting and drawing. As an active sports enthusiast, Debbie’s athletic capacity was also affected.

Keratoconus can’t be reversed or cured, but depending on how advanced the condition is, treatments such as corneal cross-linking and corrective lenses, may help stabilise the cornea and reduce the progression of keratoconus.

Corneal cross-linking uses ultraviolet light and vitamin B (riboflavin) eye drops to help stimulate new bonds in the cornea’s collagen fibers. New collagen fibers and connections can help strengthen and reinforce the cornea, preventing further bulging and thinning.

Corrective lenses require updating vision prescriptions regularly, which can be eye glasses, soft contact lenses or speciality lenses. Rigid-gas permeable (RGP) “hard” lenses or scleral contact lenses are two popular choices.

In most cases, a cornea transplant is the only effective way to restore sight.

The cornea is the transparent, dome-shaped surface of the eye and helps to shield the eye from germs, dust, and other harmful matter. The cornea acts as the eye’s outermost lens. It functions like a window that controls and focuses the entry of light into your eye. The cornea contributes between 65-75 percent of the eye’s total focusing power.

When undergoing a cornea transplant for bilateral keratoconus, the surgery involves replacing the abnormally shaped part of the cornea with a similar-sized central part of a healthy donor cornea. Cornea transplantation is generally successful and results in a dramatic improvement for people like Debbie, to see clearly again.

Debbie’s Journey

“My journey with some of the best surgeons in South Africa stretched from 1987 through to 2017, and I had multiple surgeries: 5 full corneal transplants, two partial grafts which failed, an amniotic membrane transplant after the removal of a benign tumour, and several other surgeries to remove a cataract, repair stitches and insert lenses. I also had Lazik eye surgery to improve my vision.”

The surgical attempts to restore Debbie’s vision created physical and emotional strain, but she stayed positive and drew strength from her loved ones and close friends.

A clear future

‘Sport has always played a huge role in my life and my eye surgeries have been life-changing for me, giving me back my independence and allowing me to live my life to the fullest. I achieved provincial colours for hockey as well as indoor cricket. I am now also able to enjoy my hobbies such as a bit of leather work and small woodwork projects. I am so grateful for all the anonymous Donor Angels out there.”

You have the power to make a difference.

The success of cornea transplants has improved exponentially over the years, but transplants are reliant on the availability of registered donors. Debbie’s story serves as a reminder that registering as an organ and tissue donor is a simple and easy process and can mean someone has a chance to see again. “I am forever and truly grateful and blessed in my life, all thanks to organ and tissue donors, the Organ Donor Foundation and my brilliant surgeons, as well as my family and special friends for all the support over the years.”

To learn more about tissue donation, click here . Register here to become a donor.

This article is not meant as medical advice. Please speak to your doctor or ophthalmologist if you have any questions about your eye health.

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