Preston Paralympic hero Stephanie Slater has highlighted the huge importance of being an eye donor.
The 2016 Rio gold and silver medal winner last week visited the University of Liverpool research institute to see first-hand the work that is being undertaken to pioneer new treatments and also to support of a new eye donation initiative.
Launched by St Paul’s Eye Unit, the initiative aims to raise the awareness of the importance of eye donations for transplant and research purposes.
It is encouraging more people to donate their eyes to help others affected by sight loss.
Slater knows only too well the importance of the work being carried out by the institute as she herself has been the beneficiary of a corneal transplant. An able bodied athlete who looked destined to compete at the London 2012 Games, Slater switched to parasport after suffering nerve damage to her left arm.
But before being diagnosed from that condition, Slater has been affected by a sight-threatening eye condition called keratoconus, which affects the cornea and can make your vision distorted and blurred.
As a result of this, one of Slater’s eyes received the latest treatment to prevent the condition getting worse, but the other eye was too badly affected and she required a ctransplant.
Consultant eye surgeon at St Paul’s Eye Unit Mr Mark Batterbury, undertook to perform the corneal transplant after this year’s Paralympic Games so that she could train without interruption.
Slater said: “It was so important for me to be at the 2016 Paralympic Games because my lifelong dream of competing in the Olympics ended before the London 2012 Games when I was diagnosed with nerve damage to my left arm. At the time I thought it was the end of my swimming career as well.
“I was diagnosed with keratoconus back in 2008 and was under my local hospital until my sight really deteriorated in 2013.
“I was then referred to St Paul’s Eye Unit, as it’s a specialist centre for treating eye conditions.
“They started me on a ground-breaking treatment called corneal collagen cross-linking to stop my left cornea becoming worse and causing me to lose my sight.
“However, my right eye was already too badly affected and I could no longer be corrected by glasses or contact lenses so the team decided to give me a new cornea via a transplant.
“The cornea came from someone kindly donating their eyes so parts, such as the cornea, could be used to help others see again.
“Without the cornea my sight would have continued to get worse and I may have gone blind. I now have been given the chance of gaining my vision back and being able to drive.
“It will also help me daily with my sporting career and fulfilling my dreams.
“I know of others who currently have to wait for a corneal transplant because there is a shortage of people donating their eyes. Losing your sight has a massive impact on your life and there is something that everyone can do to help others.”
Mr Mark Batterbury, said, “For every person that donates their eyes we are able to give the gift of sight to two people. What people don’t also know is that we can use their eyes even if they have poor vision themselves.
“Eyes that can’t be used for transplantation can be used to help our pioneering research to develop new sight-saving treatments.
“Unfortunately, many organ donors choose not to donate their eyes, for many different reasons, more so than any other organs.
“Stephanie is an example of the importance of donating eyes to help others. It’s vital that if you wish to donate your eyes you register on the organ donation website and inform your next of kin of your decision.”
Professor Simon Harding, Chair of Clinical Ophthalmology, Department of Eye and Vision Science, said: “The cornea is used to give the gift of sight, whereas we use other parts of the eye to development ground-breaking treatments for far reaching patient benefit.
“In our labs we can study cell behaviour to better understand why people lose their vision and develop new transplantation and cell treatments to prevent this happening.
“Through people donating their eyes after they die it means that the later stages of our research can be done with human cells and tissues allowing us to move to testing new treatments on patients much more quickly. “
Stephanie added: “There is so much more awareness around the importance of donating organs, but I think there needs to be more awareness of the importance of donating your eyes too.
“Not many people actually know how much of the eye can be used to help other people, whether it is by transplant or for research into pioneering treatments. Sight is taken for granted and it’s only when you actually begin to lose it do you realise how vitally important it is. It really does have a major impact on doing the simplest day to day tasks.
“For me it is important that I use my story to encourage people to donate their eyes, as well as other organs, so that you can leave a lasting legacy of helping others when we leave this life. Without this person’s generosity my life would be so different and I will be forever grateful to them.”
Slater won a gold medal at the 34 points 4x100m individual medley relay in Rio and als scooped an individual silver in the S8 100m butterfly.
She will begin training next year as she looks continue her stellar swimming career with the 2018 Commonwealth Games, in Australia, on the horizon followed by the Paralympics, in Tokyo, in 2020.
Earlier this month, her achievements were recognised when she was invited as a guest to the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards, in Birmingham, where she met 2012 Oympic pentathlon champion Jessica Ennis and serial Olympic champion and arguably the greatest swimmer to ever live – Michael Phelps.
“I was very lucky to get invited to BBC Sports Personality awards night. It was an absolutely amazing night.
“I finally got to meet and get a picture with my biggest inspiration Jessica Ennis and meet the greatest swimmer ever Michael Phelps.”