Four ILEB corneas restore sight in Swaziland

Dr. Ward and cornea recipient Nhlakanipho in Swaziland
When former University of Iowa resident and fellow Dr. Matthew Ward needed corneal tissue for transplants during a recent mission trip to Swaziland with The Luke Commission (TLC), he immediately reached out to the Iowa Lions Eye Bank.

Dr. Ward was the cornea fellow at the University of Iowa from 2012 to 2013, and worked very closely with the Iowa Lions Eye Bank during that time. “I consider ILEB to be the best in the business, and feel very fortunate to use ILEB tissue for my patients in private practice,” said Ward.

This was not the first time ILEB supplied tissue to help restore sight in Swaziland. In 2014, Iowa City surgeon Dr. Alex Cohen was the first surgeon to operate with The Luke Commission, and performed the first Penetrating Keratoplasty (PKP) surgery in the country. Dr. Cohen introduced Dr. Ward to TLC when they were both residents at the University of Iowa. Dr. Ward now travels annually to Swaziland with TLC to help fulfill its mission of delivering compassionate, comprehensive healthcare to rural communities in Southern Africa.

During his first trip, Dr. Ward met Nhlakanipho Mncube. Nhlakanipho was just a teenager, suffering from keratoconus, a thinning disorder of the cornea causing visual distortion. They were able to fit him with a rigid gas permeable (RGP) contact lens that helped correct his vision, but over the successive years it did not fit well and he developed more scarring. Nhlakanipho would need a cornea transplant to correct his vision.

Dr. Ward, The Luke Commission, and Iowa Lions Eye Bank came together on October 30, 2017 to give him the transplant that he desperately needed. When Dr. Ward met with Nhlakanipho for his pre-operative screening, he examined his eyes and stood up to tell him that he brought a cornea with him on the airplane for his transplant. He didn’t know that the TLC staff had not informed Nhlakanipho yet that they were planning to give him a transplant on this trip.

“He immediately burst into tears of joy and gave me a big hug. This was really an emotional moment – knowing that this young, active, healthy, bilaterally blind young man was about to see and have a new lease on life,” said Dr. Ward.

Nhlakanipho also expressed his gratitude for the gift of his cornea in a letter to his donor’s family. He wrote, “I am dictating this letter to a TLC staff member who said she would put it on her computer for me. My other eye does not see either, so writing is very difficult for me. But these are my own words, and my tears fall as I say them. I am sorry that you have lost a loved one who is so dear to you. I would love to thank you for the chance you have given me to have my sight again. I had lost all hope that I would ever see again. Monday, I had the operation. Tuesday, I had a little pain, but I am so thankful. Today is Wednesday. Many tears come down my face as I think about the wonderful gift you have given me. I can see a bit, and I am positive this will change my life. I can only imagine. I thought I wanted to be an IT man, but now I know I want to help people when I see again. I want to become a paramedic.”

Three other recipients are now also able to see because of the transplants they received from Dr. Ward during his mission trip. Two of them are 83-year-old women from Swaziland, and each of them also wrote heartfelt letters to their donor families.

Lomphezulu Dlamini wrote, “I did not know until today that someone had to die for me. Now I understand, and I have no words to say. I am very much thankful to the family who gave me this new eye. I am alive and now I will see. My left eye does not see very well, but when my left eye heals, I will be able to go back to making my hand-crafts and selling them to buy food.”

Wilsinah Dlamini wrote, “I am at a loss for words to pass my gratitude correctly. I am thankful to your family who gave me this new eye, knowing your loved one died so that I may live to see. I thank God for your gift. It has been 10 years since I could see the sky or grass or my grandchildren’s faces.”

Iowa Lions Eye Bank provided all four of these tissues pro-bono. We are so proud and honored to be part of something so monumental for these recipients.

Dr. Ward performs a cornea transplant in Swaziland.

Dr. Ward performs a cornea transplant in Swaziland.

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Cindy Reed and Greg Schmidt speaking with Kevin Corcoran.

Nhlakanipho's PKP surgery up-close.