For nine years, Sharron Thornton could see only shadows. But over the Labor Day weekend, when doctors at Miami's Bascom Palmer Eye Institute removed the bandages from her eye, she could see their faces.
She regained her vision following a rare procedure — completed in several steps over six months — in which surgeons removed one of her teeth, drilled a hole in it, inserted a plastic lens into the hole and implanted the tooth-lens combination into her eye. It's the first such operation in the United States, they said.
Thornton now has 20/70 vision, and can recognize faces and read a newspaper with a magnifying glass. She should get better vision once she is fully healed and fitted with glasses, doctors say.
Thornton, 60, knows exactly what she wants to do when she gets back home to Smithdale, Miss., pop. 2,034, in a week or two: "Play cards. Watch TV. Play with my grandbabies. I have seven new grandbabies since I was able to see."
Thornton lost her vision nine years ago to Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, a severe allergic reaction to medication that blistered and scarred her cornea, the dome-shaped part of the eye that covers the iris and pupil. She wasn't a candidate for a corneal transplant or an artificial plastic lens because the eye was too badly damaged, said Dr. Victor Perez, lead surgeon in the operation and cornea specialist at Bascom Palmer, where the procedure was performed.
A stem cell procedure attempted six years ago at Bascom Palmer also failed.
About a year ago, Thornton was referred to Perez, who also is an associate professor of ophthalmology at the University of Miami Miller Medical School, for what he calls a "procedure of last resort." He had recently trained in Rome under Italian ophthalmologist Giancarlo Falcinelli, who had developed a modified version of the tooth-lens procedure invented by another Italian doctor, Benedeteo Strampelli.
Strampelli developed the procedure in 1963, but it didn't catch on for decades because of serious complications, at one point including the tooth-lens combination falling out of a patient's eye. But with Falcinelli's modification, the procedure is spreading in Europe and Japan, and, now, in the United States. In Ireland, a worker's sight was restored after his cornea was destroyed by red-hot liquid aluminum in an explosion at a recycling plant.
Perez estimated there are 200 or more patients in the U.S. who can be helped by the surgery.
A tooth is used, Perez said, because it provides a stable, living platform of tooth, bone and cartilage that can remain alive, get nutrition from the eye and grow into a single piece with the cornea.
Thornton says she was shocked when Perez told her what he wanted to do: "Who in the world would take a tooth out of your mouth and put it in your eye?" she asked.
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