In 1983, the Eye Bank Association of America named November as National Eye Donation Month in order to raise awareness for the importance of registering to be a cornea donor, something a local pharmacist knows all too well about.
Jennifer Bussey, a University of Central Arkansas graduate and current Walmart pharmacist, went to see if she could be a candidate for LASIK surgery due to her vision getting progressively worse and cloudy. At that appointment, she found out that she had a condition called Fuch’s Dystrophy, a condition that causes fluid to build up in the top layer of the cornea causing it to swell and thicken.
“I had no idea that I had that condition until that appointment,” Bussey said. “It was affecting my work, it was affecting my driving, so I realized that I was going to have to do something to try and improve that. I’ve got to be able to see my prescriptions and I was getting to the point where even with glasses I was having trouble.”
A few years later at a routine eye exam in Little Rock, Bussey’s doctor told her that she could be a candidate for a surgery called Descemet’s Stripping Endothelial Keratoplasty (DSEK), which replaces the top layer of the cornea. She got approved for the surgery and in June of 2016, she got the surgery done with incredible success.
“After the proceeder, it did take a couple weeks before I regained total vision, but, I mean, I can’t even explain the difference,” she said. “It’s remarkable. The proceeder itself saved myself and my career.”
Today, more than 114,000 Americans are on an organ transplant waiting list and every ten minutes, another American gets added to it. Everyday, an estimated 22 people from that list die due to an organ that wasn’t available to them at that time and, of the estimated 114,00 Americans on the waiting list, about 300 of those are from Arkansas.
“If we gathered the individuals on the list in one place, there would be too many to fit into the largest football stadium in the U.S,” Audrey Coleman, director of communications for the Arkansas Regional Organ Recovery Agency (ARORA), said.
ARORA, founded in 1987, is a nonprofit that serves 64 counties in Arkansas and is the largest organ tissue recovering agency in the state. Ever since her surgery, Bussey has been working alongside the organization as a volunteer to raise awareness for the importance of tissue and organ donations.
“I volunteer because I want to get the word out about tissue and organ donation,” she said. “I want people to know how many lives can be saved and how many conditions can be improved with organ and tissue donation.”
Volunteers like Bussey are what keeps ARORA running in order to restore the lives of Arkansans through the recovery of organs and tissues.
“I am always blown away by the passion and dedication of ARORA’s volunteers,” Beth Cameron, the manager of family aftercare at ARORA, said. “So many of them are people who have been touched by donation and want to spread the message to help others who are in need of life-saving organ transplants, sight-restoring cornea transplants or life-restoring tissue transplants. I am so grateful to work with amazing volunteers like Jennifer and learn about the stories of those who received and those who gave every single day.”
Today, only 64 percent of Arkansans are registered organ, tissue and/or eye donors which ARORA says isn’t enough.
“Each organ donor can save the lives of eight individuals and tissue donation can help restore the lives of 75, according to Donate Life America,” Coleman said. “Speaking specifically about cornea donation, because November is Eye Donation Month, each cornea donation can restore the sight of two people. Although many are registered donors, the need for organ, tissue and eye donation still vastly exceeds the number of donors.”
About 12 million people worldwide are suffering from a type of blindness that can be healed with a corneal transplant and Bussey is just one of the many success stories that shows the importance of having more donors in this world to improve that number.
“I recommend anyone to sign up to be a donor, it’s a life saving thing for many people,” Bussey said.
Today, Bussey has to take a daily steroid drop in order to keep her vision up, but her story still isn’t quite over yet.
“I do know that with time, it could be five years, ten years, or longer, I will have to have the tissue replaced and have another proceeder done,” she said. “I hope that there will be a donor out there for me at that time.”
Story originally published Nov 20, 2021.