Transplant brings sight
Cornea recipient thanks donor's family

Wednesday, December 16, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Stephanie Weigel, 31, received a cornea from 18-year-old James Frank, one of two brothers who died from an auto accident two weeks ago.
(Michael E. Keating photo)

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When Christine Frank signed papers less than two weeks ago giving permission to donate the organs of her two dead sons, she hoped her tragedy could be relief for someone else.

"When you're faced with no hope, you cling to another hope -- that another mother can stand here and hear good news," she said then at University Hospital, where her children James and Chris Frank had died following a car accident.

"They are getting a great gift -- my sons."

On Tuesday, Mrs. Frank got confirmation that the gift was received. She talked to Stephanie Weigel, who had received the cornea of Mrs. Frank's older son, 18-year-old James.

"Just to know that people are surviving and living and families are happy, just because of my boys, it really helps a lot," Mrs. Frank said. "I would love for her to see the drawings my son did so she knows what kind of eyes she's getting. An artist's eyes. He always saw the good in everything."

Ms. Weigel, 31, who said her heart hurt when she originally heard of the tragedy that beset the Frank family, tried to express her gratitude.

"It's such an honor to be associated with good people," she said. "What these people have done, I hope they know how it is appreciated and how grateful I am."

The Frank boys, students at Glen Este High School, were injured Dec. 1, when James lost control of his car on southbound Interstate 275 in Clermont County, near the Beechmont Avenue exit. It swerved into the side of a van, which slammed the car broadside. (The Franks' story)

James died the next day. Christine and her husband, James, decided to take Christopher off life support a day later.

James' liver, kidneys, and corneas were transplanted. Chris' kidneys were transplanted, and his corneas went to medical research. Ms. Weigel is a registered nurse who lives in Sidney, Shelby County, about an hour north of Dayton, Ohio. She works for Daymont Behavioral Health Care Inc. in Dayton.

Dr. William Faulkner at the Cincinnati Eye Institute said Ms. Weigel suffers from keratoconus, a curvature of the cornea to a pinpoint that afflicts some people in their teens or early 20s. He said there is no known cause.

From the age of 12 to 17, Ms. Weigel gradually lost her vision in both eyes.

"Something was taken away every day," she said. "All I could see was black and gray."

At 17, she received a cornea transplant. A year later, she received an operation no longer available, where a donated cornea was shaped into a "living contact lens" and placed over her own cornea.

She could see again.

"I drove myself to Colorado because I wanted to see the mountains," she said.

But earlier this year, a cloud formed in her right eye.

"Six months ago, in March, was the first time I saw 20-20 vision with my glasses," she said. "I was so happy, but that was so short-lived, because two months later I went into corneal rejection."

Dr. Faulkner said the cells in Ms. Weigel's donated cornea just "gave out." She was placed on the donor list. Two weeks ago, as she drove from her home to the Eye Institute, she passed an eight-car pile-up on Interstate 75.

"When you are on a donor's list, you sit and look and think, is this it? Am I going to get one of these?" she said.

It was not that accident, but one a half-hour away, that proved to be the tragedy that would ultimately help her see.

"I had heard about the accident and the family," she said. "I hurt for them. My mom, she was crying when she heard it on the news. My mom's just like that. Then I found out I was going to get one of the corneas from the 18-year-old. They said, 'This is the cornea of a lifetime. You won't get a better cornea.' "

When she talks about the gift of sight, her voice breaks and she cries.

"I just want these lovely people to know what they're doing is incredible," she said.

Ms. Weigel said healing should take about a year. Dr. Faulkner said he expects the best.

"This graft could last 30 or 40 or 50 years," he said. "A young donor can be very healthy. We're hoping to get a lot of mileage out of this cornea."

That would make Mrs. Frank very happy.

"What these people have done, I hope they know how it is appreciated and how grateful I am."

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