CASSIE Hames was 15 years old when her sight started to deteoriate.
She first noticed something was wrong when she couldn’t pick out landmarks or read street signs, and even people’s faces.
“I couldn’t make anything out because I needed contrast to see things. If you put a glass on a table, I wouldn’t be able to see it,” Ms Hames, now 27, from Adelaide, told news.com.au.
“It was really scary to go to the optometrist and realise I couldn’t read half the test card, when previously I could read the whole thing.”
Ms Hames was diagnosed with keratoconus, a disease where the cornea, the clear layer on the outside of the eye, thins and becomes misshapen.
Her doctors said her condition was past the point of treatment and a corneal transplant was the only cure.
She went on the organ donor list in January 2010 and was lucky enough to receive a corneal transplant in her left eye in February. In March 2012, she had another transplant in her right eye.
A corneal transplant is a fairly straightforward procedure and usually patients notice an immediate improvement in their vision.
“There’s this big clock in my mum’s house and before [the transplant] I couldn’t read the numbers, but a couple of days afterwards I could see them again,” Ms Hames said.
She used to walk with a stick and can now see with regular glasses.
“It’s just little things like that which make a big difference,” she said.
This week is Donate Life Week, and the Organ and Tissue Authority is encouraging Australians to register as organ donors and to discuss our personal views on organ donation with our families.
The Australian Organ Donor Register is the only way to become an organ donor. The old system of ticking a box on your driver’s licence application is no longer available, except for in South Australia.
“We want people to register and to donate all of their organs, even their eyes and heart,” said the Organ and Tissue Authority’s national medical director, Dr Helen Opdam.
“There’s only about 1000 people each year who die in hospital on life support and they’re the only ones who can donate kidneys, hearts, lungs and livers. It’s an infrequent, precious opportunity. But many more people die in circumstances where they can donate their eyes,” she said.
If someone donates their whole eye, it is replaced with a prosthesis and the eye socket is closed. Corneal donors have their corneas replaced with a plastic contact lens.
In a corneal transplant, it’s only the clear front part of the eye being replaced, not the iris — the coloured part — so the eye doesn’t change colour.
“It’s still possible to have an open casket and people wouldn’t know that donation has occurred,” Dr Opdam said.
She says there are currently 1600 people waiting for an organ transplant in Australia
“It’s a real pity, because if were in their shoes, we would all want one. We’d all want that opportunity for ourselves and our families,” Dr Opdam said.
Telling family members about your organ donation preferences is the best way to ensure your wishes are carried out when you die.
According to the Organ and Tissue Authority, when someone dies and is an organ donor, 91 per cent of the time their family agrees to donate their organs. But this success rate drops to just 52 per cent, if the deceased is not a registered donor and the family does not know about their preferences.
In Australia, organ donation is anonymous, so Ms Hames only knows the age and gender of her two donors.
“Every morning I do a bit of a thank you to them, because it is something that’s with you all the time. I’m very grateful,” she said.
“I ended up getting the before and after photos of my eyes printed onto two canvases and they’re mounted in my living room. It’s a nice reminder of how lucky I am.”
Donate Life Weeks runs from July 31 until August 7. To register to become an organ donor, visit donatelife.gov.au