Jean Wetherill smiles as she plays the piano

Jean Wetherill smiles as she plays the piano

Grateful for the gift of sight

Thanks to the gift of a new cornea, Jean Wetherill has been able to return to doing the things she loves

When Jean Wetherill wakes up in the morning, she can see everything all the way across the lake.  She smiles, and quietly says, “Thank you,” to the unknown person who donated a cornea for her transplant.

She had known since her late 50s that she had corneal dystrophy and would eventually be blind.

A year ago, when she was 74, living with and adjusting to her failing sight with new glasses every eight months, her doctor said, “You have maybe three years of sight left. Do you want to have a corneal transplant?”

Wetherill seized the hope, knowing that there are not enough corneas donated and she could possibly wait a long time for the operation. Corneal dystrophy causes the cells in the cornea to die off and the space between the cell clusters makes the sight degenerate.

“I was on the golf course when I got the call that there was a cornea available. I was just gleeful. I threw my clubs aside and rushed home as soon as I could. I had to be there in Kelowna the next morning because once the cornea is released from the eye bank, it is best if the operation is done within 24 hours,” she said.

She put on her lucky ladybug sweater and was there the morning of June 22, for the operation which required only light anesthetic and no overnight stay in hospital.

“I didn’t feel anything and I had to keep the eye covered for the first two days and keep from bending, lifting or disturbing my eye. My sight returned gradually and everything is completely clear. I had one eye done and I hope I can have the other done. It’s made all the difference to my life. Talk about being grateful,” said Wetherill, who has been able to keep driving and playing golf and resume some other activities like reading music so she can play the piano and sing. She’s thinking of trying painting and duplicate bridge and admits that she can now see lots of places in her house that need cleaning that she couldn’t see before.

She is well known for her volunteer work in the community, including with the Canadian Cancer Society, at the Performing Arts Centre, as a peer counselor with the Seniors Information Resource Bureau, helping to found SOLD (Society for Open Learning and Discussion), and Sweet Adelines. She is active in Toastmasters and helps with the Queen Silver Star education program.

Wetherill was born in Olds, Alta. and moved to Vernon when she was eight. Her parents owned a sawmill and she went to school in Lumby. She attended Beairsto, Seaton and Fulton schools and admired her teachers, wanting to be a teacher herself someday. She was born the same day, April 21, as Queen Elizabeth, who is 11 years older, and always kept a scrapbook about the Queen. She attended normal school in Victoria and got her first teaching job in Squamish, which could then be reached only by boat. She married an Australian engineer and moved to Australia with him where they had two sons. While the young family was living in New Guinea, her husband died in a boating accident and she came back to Canada for what she thought would be a visit.

She met Ellis Wetherill, a widower who had two children and owned a farm machinery business. She was attracted but took her time, teaching again and then becoming the first woman All State Insurance seller in Western Canada. She returned to Vernon and stayed home with the new family, getting active in volunteer work when they were grown up. She and Ellis have been married for 43 years, have eight grandchildren and have just welcomed their first great-grandson.

“I’m so grateful every day for having my life back. I vow that I won’t have any grumbles about anything anymore. I know that there are a lot of people of all ages who could benefit from this operation if the corneas were available. Anyone who is an organ donor is also a cornea donor unless they have specified otherwise and I urge everyone to become an organ donor. There is so much need,” she said.

A few details on corneal transplants

According to the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), of all the Canadians currently waiting to receive corneal transplants, only a small percentage of them will get the help they need to restore their sight. You can change that by arranging to become an eye donor.

When you donate your eyes, you are primarily donating the cornea, the thin layer of tissue that covers the eye like a window. The cornea focuses light ray on the retina and protects delicate working parts of the eye from injury. Replacing a scarred or damaged cornea is like replacing a frosted window with a clear glass.

Anyone can be an eye donor. Because the cornea is a clear layer of tissue, it isn’t necessary to match the eye colour, age or sex of the donor. Even if you wear glasses or have other eye conditions such as cataracts, you may still have healthy corneal tissue suitable for donation.

All donors are checked for AIDS, hepatitis and a host of other diseases and all tissue is checked for clarity before the transplant proceeds. Corneal transplants are by far the most successful transplants performed today — 85 per cent of people who receive new corneas regain their sight.

To give the gift of sight, simply fill out any donor consent card such as the one that comes with your driver’s licence. Then, keep the card with you.