This is part of a series about extraordinary experiences in personal health. Share yours at email@example.com.
It's amazing how easy it is to get through international airports with a Styrofoam container of eyeballs. I've flown through New York, London. Nobody wants to look at it. I just have a letter that says it's eye transplant tissue, and they run it through the X-ray. I've never had anyone open it. If they did, they'd find little vials of eyeballs in fluid.
I go on several missions a year to Uganda, where I volunteer my time and often at my own cost as well, because the need for eye surgery there is so great. On this last mission, we were doing corneal transplants and cataract surgeries. And it's tricky planning these missions because there are so many unknown variables.
I reached out to The Eye Bank of Canada and an eye bank in the U.S. to ask for tissue donations. Normally, I can expect anywhere from zero tissues to like, four or five. But actually, there was a bounty and I ended up getting 18 eyeballs, half from the U.S. and half from Canada. I was very excited, but that also put the pressure on us because these tissues have to be transplanted within 14 days of the donor dying. Every day you don't use it, the number of cells decline. So every day matters. By the time a person dies, it takes a day to get the tissues, a day to process them, to put it into a special medium to be preserved, and check to make sure they're good quality.
Typically, they courier them to the operating room. But I didn't feel safe about having them couriered to a country in Africa because who knows if they're going to make it? So I picked up the ones from the Canadian eye bank myself in my car. The ones from the U.S., I figured I'd have them couriered to my house. But even though it said, "human tissue for transplant," "rush delivery" and all that, it got stopped at customs. We were about to leave, and I was worried because there's nine families who have donated eyes of their loved ones, and what if they don't get through? My secretary had to call and fight customs and she finally got it through.
It takes two days to get to Uganda, so you lose a few days in the travel. But the other hiccup I had was there was a medical emergency on the flight there. A gentleman was about to pass out. They asked if there's a doctor on the flight. I'm an eye surgeon, so I haven't done medical stuff in a decade. Despite our efforts, he went unconscious and wasn't coming to. So I told them to turn the plane around as we were going across the Atlantic, and we had to make an emergency landing in Gander, Nfld., and he was taken into the emergency. I think he came to later on, but they still don't know why he was unconscious. But now, our plane got re-routed, so we were going to lose a day.
Once I arrived in Uganda, I made sure to make the container not that obvious. I put the container on the ground when I was talking to the customs agent. I didn't want any excuse for anyone to confiscate it or delay it, because if we delayed it a day or two, that would be wasting tissues. By the time I got in, it was 3 a.m. and I had to wake up at 8 a.m. the next day to do surgeries.
Since we could do maybe four or five transplants a day, we were working 14 to 15 hours days to get these things done. The surgeries can be difficult because the equipment isn't nearly as good quality as what we have here. You're operating in a room that doesn't have air conditioning, the microscopes aren't as good. We did a total of 16 corneal transplants, most of them were on young people. The last two tissues ended up being used as training eyes for resident surgeons to practice on. It was all in all a success.
It was like a roller coaster ride, or more accurately, it's like a blindfolded roller coaster ride. But the upside is when you pull through, and it all works out. And you feel exhilaration.
Dr. Matthew Bujak is an assistant professor of ophthalmology at the University of Toronto.
As told to Wency Leung