Superheroes save man’s eyesight

Phil Hester draws superheroes for a living, but little did he know that he would one day need two superheroes to restore his sight. “Eyesight is important to everyone,” says Phil. “But as an artist, it’s an integral part of my identity.”

For the past 30 years, Phil Hester of North English, Iowa has worked as a professional comic book artist. He has written and drawn comics for hundreds of publications and his artwork has been featured in popular titles such as Green Arrow, Swamp Thing, Wonder Woman, Ant-Man, The Flash, Batman Beyond, and more.

In 2015, shortly after being diagnosed with a cardiac condition, Phil began having difficulty seeing his drawing board. His eyesight was foggy in the mornings and he noticed more glare coming from light fixtures. “I just figured it was one of the side effects of the new blood pressure medication I was taking,” says Phil.

As time went on, it became increasingly difficult for Phil to complete his artwork. A page of comic art that would typically take Phil a day to finish now took him two and a half days. He also had to frequently redraw his work.

Then, during a routine visit to the optometrist to check his prescription, Phil was told he was showing signs of Fuchs’ Dystrophy, a progressive corneal disease causing vision loss.

The prospect of losing his vision terrified Phil. “Drawing is not only how I express myself, it’s also how I provide for my family,” he says.

Phil’s optometrist referred him to Dr. Kenneth Goins, an ophthalmologist at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (UIHC), who officially diagnosed Phil with Fuchs’ Dystrophy. Dr. Goins explained that Phil’s disease was progressing rapidly - his corneas had severe edema and an abundance of guttata. When Dr. Goins told Phil he needed a corneal transplant, Phil didn’t hesitate.

“Everyone at the UIHC Cornea Clinic is on top of their game, so I had no fears about going into surgery. I was so anxious for relief; I was just thankful there was a solution,” says Phil.

Just days after his surgery, Phil began seeing better. “I was surprised at what an improvement I noticed in such a short period of time,” he says. “I was so excited, I started drawing right away.”

That’s not all Phil did to celebrate his successful transplants – he also wrote thank you notes to the superheroes that restored his sight – the families of his cornea donors.

“Writing these notes was so difficult for me,” Phil says. “I was at a loss to explain how much this whole experience has meant to me and how thankful I am to be able to see again. It’s almost impossible to express your gratitude.”

The Iowa Lions Eye Bank has a Family Services Program that assists cornea recipients who wish to communicate with their donor families. “So many of our grateful recipients choose to write thank you notes to their donor families, but it’s a very personal decision,” says Debra Schuett, Family Services Coordinator at the Iowa Lions Eye Bank. “Phil’s letters were sincere, from the heart and well-written. I can only imagine the positive impact they had on the grieving family members of his selfless donors.”

Today, Phil can now see clearly out of both eyes. In late January 2017, he had a follow up visit at the UIHC Cornea Clinic. Dr. Goins is very pleased with his progress and is optimistic the corneal grafts will be effective for years to come.

Phil is grateful every day to his donors, the staff at the UIHC Ophthalmology Department, and the Iowa Lions Eye Bank for making his sight restoration possible. He also believes that receiving the cornea transplants has changed the way he thinks about his artwork.

“I feel a sense of obligation to make the most out of the gifts I’ve been given by my donors,” says Phil. “I’ve always loved what I do, but now, I never have a day where I don’t want to work – I’m always eager to get started because I know what a precious gift that I have been given.”

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On May 25, 2017, Phil will share his story as a keynote speaker at the Celebration of Hope and Renewal, an annual event hosted by the Iowa Lions Eye Bank at the Iowa Lions Donor Memorial & Healing Garden, located across from the main entrance at UIHC.