Blind World Magazine

Former cornea transplant patient is well placed to offer advice to others.

December 08, 2005.
Yorkshire Post (UK).

WHEN leading eye surgeon Ian Simmons counsels patients who are preparing for cornea transplants, he speaks from experience.

It was 15 years ago that the 43-year-old specialist, who heads eye services in hospitals in Leeds, received a new cornea in his left eye.

Without the operation he might have struggled to become a doctor. But to undergo the transplant he was dependent on the generosity of the 21-year-old donor whose organs were taken after a fatal motorcycle accident as well as the expertise of doctors before him who developed the procedure first successfully carried out an amazing 100 years ago today.

Mr Simmons was 18 when he noticed problems in both eyes because of a condition known as keratoconus. This is the most common cause of problems in younger people - it changes the shape of the cornea, the transparent window less than a millimetre thick at the front of the eyeball that helps focus light rays onto the retina at the back of the eye. It left him unable to focus without a rigid contact lens which was impractical to insert, for instance, if he was called out in the middle of the night to answer an emergency when every moment counts.

Mr Simm "When I first had it done my vision wasn't clear and it took a number of months of visual rehabilitation to get it right. Now I can put glasses on and see like everybody else.

"It has been a wonderful thing to have had it done and it has given me an awful lot of freedom. It's phenomenal to think that it's 100 years ago since this surgery was first carried out."

He realised he wanted to become an eye surgeon shortly before his transplant in 1989.

Later as a junior doctor he was involved in asking relatives to allow their loved one's organs to be transplanted and as a trainee he carried out the operations himself.

Now he specialises in eye surgery on children, but is still called in to tell other patients worried about their transplants about his experience.

There have been advances in the transplant procedure since he underwent the operation and he is involved in fundraising to enable further work to be carried out in the field through the charity Yorkshire Eye Research.

But the basic technique is still the same as that used in the first successful corneal graft. It was carried out by Eduard Zirm, chief of medicine in Olomouc in Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic, on December 7, 1905, and launched the transplant age.

Dr Zirm transplanted the cornea from an 11-year-old boy who had a deep foreign-body injury to one eye, leaving him blind in that eye and in intractable pain, into a 43-year-old labourer who had been blinded in an accident while slaking lime. After a few hours the patient could see again and he retained his eyesight for the rest of his life.

The transplant was first carried out in Britain in London in 1930. Now more than 2,200 blind and partially-sighted people in the UK can see again every year thanks to the procedure, although this is still 800 short of the number of transplants it is estimated need to be carried out annually.

A record number of cornea transplants was carried out in the first six months of the year and special funding at eight eye retrieval centres is designed to further increase the number.

But the managing director of UK Transplant, Chris Rudge said more people could be helped if the shortage of donors was overcome. Anyone can join the NHS Organ Donor Register by calling 0845 60 60 400 or by visiting

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