Blind World

First person in Northern California to receive an artificial cornea.

June 8, 2004.

By Dorsey Griffith,
Bee Medical Writer,
The Sacramento Bee.

If the creators of the artificial cornea had an official spokesman, Nikon Sandulyak would be the ideal candidate.

Never mind that Sandulyak doesn't speak English, or that he sometimes strays, in flowery hyperbole, from the questions at hand. The Ukrainian immigrant will stop at nothing to demonstrate the success of the operation he says has turned his previously dark world into "a paradise of miracles, wonders and colors." Sandulyak, 72, had a chance to do that Monday when eye surgeons at UC Davis Medical Center announced that they had successfully implanted an artificial cornea in Sandulyak's right eye, allowing him to see more than darkness and light for the first time in 38 years.

Ophthalmologist Mark Mannis said Sandulyak was the first person in Northern California to receive the new device, and one of about 175 people in the nation.

Even before the press conference, Sandulyak was showing off his newfound sight, waving to reporters and mugging for photographers. Asked by one skeptic to read the clock on the wall, Sandulyak nailed it: "It is 17 minutes to 12," he said in Ukrainian through an interpreter.

Sandulyak was a young father and veterinarian in 1966 when an accident with lye left him blind. Blindness forced him to change careers, but it never crushed his spirit or sapped his energy.

"I was blind, but I didn't have any free time," he said.

"He would wake up and clean the house, dig in the garden, clean the floor, do the laundry," added his wife, Klavdiya. "He did everything."

He became a massage therapist, a career he enjoyed for 33 years. He and Klavdiya also raised two daughters, both of whom entered the medical field. Today they are medical students; one attends UC Davis Medical School, the other is at Stanford.

For years the couple eagerly scoured medical literature for information about sight restoration surgeries. But because his eyes were so severely damaged, a traditional cornea transplant - using a donated human cornea - was out of the question.

It wasn't until moving to Carmichael nine months ago that he met Mannis and got the chance he had only dreamed of.

Mannis was one of a handful of surgeons in the United States who had received training to use the artificial cornea. An expert in corneal diseases, Mannis, however, had never done the procedure in a patient.

Mannis said earlier generations of artificial corneas had high failure rates. The new device, called the Dohlman Keratoprosthesis, proved far more effective. Developed over the past 20 years by a team at Harvard Medical School's Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, the Dohlman Keratoprosthesis was finally approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2002.

After meeting with Sandulyak late last year, Mannis determined that his patient was a perfect candidate for the operation.

During the two-hour surgery on May 27, Mannis sandwiched a donated cornea between the two parts of the round plastic device, then fastened them together with tiny nuts and bolts. He then stitched the device into the front of Sandulyak's eye.

Mannis said that unlike the traditional cornea transplant, the donor tissue in this procedure does not help a person to see, but is used like glue to ensure that the artificial cornea is incorporated into the patient's own eye.

Two days after the surgery, Sandulyak experienced what every surgeon - and patient - hopes for when the bandages came off.

"I was very joyous," he said. "It was wonderful, I could see everything around me, and I didn't experience any pain."

One by one he saw his entire family, some for the first time. He hadn't seen his daughters since they were ages 5 and 7.

"I have wonderful daughters and sons-in-law - they are all so beautiful and handsome," he said. Then, in a breathless gush, he addressed the assembled media representatives: "All of you are so beautiful and handsome. You look like actors."

Asked how he liked seeing himself in a mirror for the first time since 1966, he covered his face in his hands. "I am NOT beautiful," he said. "I didn't recognize myself."

Klavdiya, for her part, said she never thought her husband would see again. "It's great, immense, infinite joy," she said, tears welling in her eyes.

For Sandulyak, the possibilities are endless.

"I want to see everything, everything," he said. "I am full of strength and energy and I am ready to be useful to people."

After the press conference, and despite his wife's best efforts to restrain him, Sandulyak demonstrated as much, walking around the room and doing a little a jig. Then, he touched his toes, kicked each leg up to chest level and finally dropped to the floor to do push-ups.

Mannis acknowledged his patient's exuberance and said the surgery has left him with excellent near and distant vision. He cautioned, however, that Sandulyak is not out of the woods.

"He will need to be on medication to manage this for the rest of his life and be followed to ensure his success," he said. "The prosthesis could be ejected, he could get glaucoma, an infection or detachment of the retina," he said.

Sandulyak is aware of the risks, and the possibility that his new eyesight could be short-lived. "Well, if I don't have vision it won't matter because I hadn't had it for so long," he said. "Now, while I have it, I will enjoy it."

The Bee's Dorsey Griffith can be reached at (916) 321-1089 or

End of article.

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