Meet the patients: John Underwood

John UnderwoodJohn Underwood’s eyesight had detoriated so badly that every day tasks like making a cup of tea or catching a bus began to cause problems. 

Now, following a new type of corneal transplant, he can see clearly in his left eye.

John, 69, from Southampton, suffers from Fuch’s dystrophy, an eye disease that causes fluid to build up in his eyes and blur his vision.

Every morning he would go through the discomfort of drying his eyes with a hairdryer, to try and improve his sight for the day.

John knew that he would eventually need a corneal transplant, but after he had a cataract operation his eyesight went downhill within a couple of days and he was put on the waiting list.

In January 2008, he had a Descemet’s stripping endothelial keratoplasty (DSEK).  This is a new type of corneal graft, where only the inner part of the cornea is replaced.  Previously John would have had a penetrating keratoplasty (PK), where the whole cornea would have been transplanted.

David Anderson , the specialist consultant who performed John’s operation, said: “A DSEK results in a much quicker recovery than a standard corneal transplant and also avoids the need for stitches, although this may not be suitable for all patients.”

John is still waiting to have his right cornea replaced, but there is a shortage of transplant material.

He says the difference between his two eyes is like Monet’s paintings – in one eye he can see like Monet’s early paintings, in crisp, bright colours, but in his right eye, it is still like the artist’s impressionist style.

John said: “Before my operation the eldest of my three grandsons, who is six, was helping me cross the road one day when he asked if I was going to get a dog!”

The deterioration of John’s eyesight had a big impact on his life.  After 40 years working as a butcher, John took on an admin role at Lyndhurst Magistrates’ Court.  However, his condition made him night blind and he had to leave work early each day to beat the darkness.

After he retired, John found even simple things became very difficult.  He would overfill cups of tea because he couldn’t see the hot water properly, and once he even ended up going into town instead of home because he couldn’t see bus numbers properly and got on the wrong bus.

Now John proudly shows off how he can read the numbers of the houses across the street.

He said: “I am really delighted with it and looking forward to having the other one done.  It has made such a difference and the staff were brilliant.  Hopefully I can drive again once I’ve had the other side done.”

Corneal transplant factfile

Unlike other organs, which must be donated immediately, corneas can be donated up to 24 hours after death.

There is also no need to carry out tissue matching with the recipient, although usually a younger patient will receive corneas from a young donor.

There is no upper age limit on corneal donation - the oldest known donor was 103 years old, and the oldest recipient was 104 years old.

There is a national shortage of donors and this is the only reason people are waiting for transplant operations.

In the past around 12 transplants were carried out each year at the Eye Unit, with many patients sent to London.  Now Southampton takes patients from across the region, with complex cases come from Wiltshire, Dorset, Sussex, the Isle of Wight and the Channel Islands.

Thanks to the Eye Unit League of Friends , SUHT is one of only five trusts to have imaging equipment capable of getting images from right through the cornea.

For more information or to be added to the Organ Donor Register, visit www.uktransplant.org.uk , or call 0845 6060400.

More patient stories

John's story was original published in Connect magazine , where you can find out about more real-life patients.