Cornea transplant a dream come true for Uitenhage resident

Aphiwe Mene, 25, has undergone a successful corneal transplant
SIGHT RESTORED: Aphiwe Mene, 25, has undergone a successful corneal transplant
Image: SUPPLIED

A young man whose eyesight began degenerating when he was still in primary school has been given a corneal transplant thanks to kindhearted members of the Rotary Foundation.

Twelve years after initially beginning to lose his vision, Aphiwe Mene, 25, successfully underwent a corneal transplant operation to his left eye two weeks ago.

The Uitenhage resident said words could not describe his gratitude to the Lions Club International in the Eastern Cape and Southern Cape for donating R45,000 towards the surgery at Life St George’s Hospital, and giving him a second chance at fulfilling his dream of become a public relations officer.

Mene suffered from keratoconus — a condition that causes the cornea to weaken, become thinner and change shape — when he was in primary school.

His sight worsened in high school, but through the support of his teachers he managed to pass matric, he said.

While both his eyes were affected, he lost vision in his right permanently due to an unrelated incident in 2019.

“It started in grade 5; I could not see clearly and when I got to high school the teachers had to assist me and give me notes, as I was not able to see on the board.

“It was frustrating,” he said.

“In 2016, I enrolled at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology to study PR.

“I was failing, my eyesight was bad, I had to drop out and that’s where my depression started,” he said.

He said he felt hopeless and left behind, and almost gave up at a time when his friends were starting to progress in life.

“No-one understood the emotional pain I was under.

“I had a vision for my life but my eyes were failing me.

“I lost both my parents and lived with siblings and cousins, and that alone was a nightmare, especially for a person with my condition,” he said.

He said while he was in Cape Town he consulted a private practitioner about the eye operation and was told it would cost about R100,000.

“I prayed to God daily for a miracle.” 

After being punched in his right eye in September 2019, he said his sight only became worse until he eventually went completely blind in that eye.

In August, Mene came across The Lions Club International website and saw an article about a 16-year-old teen who recently had a corneal transplant done through the help of the club.

Mene took a chance and contacted them.

“When I received a call that it was a done deal, I was so excited.

“I knew that everything was going to go well [thereafter],” he said.

Lions Club International regional chair Freddie Erasmus said they were honoured to be able to assist Mene.

He said the club’s branches in different towns and friends came together to raise funds in three days, and were able to import a cornea.

“Mene seemed like an ambitious person and we wanted to help him build his life.

“We hope he will now chase his dreams,” Erasmus said.

Dr Nick York, ophthalmologist at Life St George’s Hospital and the only fellowship-trained corneal surgeon in the Eastern Cape, performed the operation.

He said he felt privileged to be able to help Mene and restore his eyesight.

SA had a shortage of organ and tissue donors, York said, and this resulted in long waiting lists for corneal transplants of up to a decade.

“We successfully restored his left eye but unfortunately couldn’t with his right eye as it was permanently blind due to injury.

“We hope the public sign up as organ and tissue donors; one organ donor can save seven lives and help improve the quality of life of up to 50 people,” he said.

York said most corneal surgeons imported corneal tissue from countries such as the US, where corneal donations were higher than local demand.

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