Ken always says that when someone in the family has eye disease, the whole family is affected. That was certainly the case for my family when I was a child. While a young man in his mid-30s, with a wife and two small kids, my father learned he had a degenerative corneal condition that would take his vision within ten years. Our family lived under the cloud of his dread as those years ticked away and his vision clouded over. Dad, the proverbial Chicago Irishman (who was one-quarter Irish) was emotional on a good day. With his immanent blindness, he would on occasion dissolve into sobs that are now etched in my memory of those years.
What happened next was nothing short of a miracle. Dad had a corneal transplant. Dr. Max Fine, who pioneered corneal transplant surgery, became his doctor. Dr. Fine performed the first corneal transplant in 1939. He went on to train hundreds of doctors in the procedure over an amazing, 57-year practice, much of it at Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco.
I remember my parents awaiting the day when a call would come that someone had passed away and donated dad’s new cornea. Their suitcases were packed so they could leave immediately, because it was a six-hour drive to San Francisco from our home in Santa Barbara. Dad was in Mt Zion Hospital for 30 days for each of his two surgeries. All of his vision was eventually restored. Dad revered Dr. Fine, his eyes welling with tears as he talked to anyone who would listen about the miracle of this new medicine. He joined the Lions Club and went on a speaking journey with them that lasted a decade.
My dad lived a long and full life, long enough to need new transplants when he was in his 70s. This time, however, Dr. Fine had retired. The hospital stay was one day, and the corneas were in the freezer. For one of his eyes the doctors were able to give him a new lens, obviating the need for his trademark glasses. They made a soft contact lens for his other eye. Emotional as he always was, tearing with a heart felt story and always when he laughed, that contact lens was forever sliding off into his food, most memorably into a plate of enchiladas.