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Organ donors giving a second chance at life

Erin Caroline received the gift of sight after receiving corneas; a traumatic brain injury caused her to lose vision. Caroline is making the most of her sight and thankful for the time she gets to see her daughter, Ilona, pictured here with her. Submitted photo

Feb. 14 may be known to many as the day of love because of Valentine's Day, but to some this day represents the love given for those that donate an organ, eye or tissue. Besides Valentine's Day, Feb. 14 is also National Donor's Day. Organ donor recipients from all over the United States have been given a second chance at life when they receive a life saving organ.

According to the American Transplant Foundation website about 116,000 people in the United States are on the waiting list to receive an organ to save their life. Some of these local recipients are living proof that being a donor does make a difference to both the one donating the organ and the one receiving it.

Lasting visual memories

Besides organ donation, one area woman stresses the importance of eye and tissue donation as well. Without receiving a cornea she wouldn't be able to see.

In 2010, Erin Caroline of Rosemount suffered a traumatic brain injury, followed by an aneurysm that caused her to have Multiple Mechanism Glaucoma.

The impact of the injury caused Caroline to lose her sight, but she was able to receive new corneas to restore part of her sight. She said when the potential transplant was in play, there was only a 72-hour window for her to be able to receive a transplant. But everything fell into place and thankfully she was able to have it.

"I'm seeing right now because there was that right match within 72 hours," Caroline said.

Sadly, the glaucoma continues to break down her current cornea and she is still considered legally blind. But she is still grateful for what she is able to see.

"It's important to me to see as a single mom, to see my daughter," Caroline said. "People have no idea what gift of sight means. I'm very grateful for it, I don't take it for granted."

Unfortunately, Caroline said she realizes her eyesight will continue to deteriorate and there may be a day when she can't see. But right now she tries to stay positive and keep her sense of humor that she is lucky to see what she can.

"I'm continuing to go blind," Caroline said. "There's no cure for me. But I'm on this side of the grass so I can't complain."

Caroline said her vision will continue to deteriorate, starting with lessening peripheral vision. However, Caroline is still determined to make the most of the time she has to see. She has created a visual bucket list.

"What I want to see and remember so when I can't see I can reflect back," Caroline said about her visual bucket list. "But I've always said I don't know how I feel about when I can't see my daughter."

Caroline said sometimes people may not realize the importance of tissue and eye donation as compared to organ donation. She said these are separate things and people need to make sure their wishes to also donate tissue and eyes are known to family and friends.

Donating can change a person's life, Caroline said, whether it is giving the gift of life with life-saving organs such as a heart, or the gift of sight with a cornea.

"The gift of senses is as crucial and critical as the gift of life," Caroline said. "The gift of sight is incredible."

Unfortunately for Caroline, even though her corneas are breaking down, her insurance company won't allow her to have another transplant because she is legally blind; the insurance company doesn't believe there will be enough benefit from the surgery. However, she continues to look at what other options are available such as stem cell therapy.

One of the important parts of receiving her corneas, Caroline said, was to be able to thank the donor's family. At first they didn't want to be contacted, but she was able to finally express her gratitude to the organ donor's sister. She recommends organ donors allow contact with the organ recipient.

"Recipients feel a strong emotional [desire] to express thankfulness," Caroline said. "It's been kind of neat to have connection with my donor's sister. I can share pictures of my daughter and what I see. She feels warm about her brother and what his contribution did."