By Keith Whitson
“I thought ‘Well it’s worth a chance.,’” said Dean Masters of Erwin when he decided to go through with his cornea transplant surgery a couple of weeks ago. Masters, who is 59 years old now, started losing his eyesight when he was around 30, due to his diabetic condition.
Looking back almost 30 years, Dean said “The diabetes messed it up when I was younger but I really didn’t notice anything until they said I needed to go to Duke and have special surgery.” “I had five surgeries at Duke, thinking that was going to save my sight but that didn’t work. After all of the surgeries at Duke, all I could see was light and dark out of my right eye and nothing out of the left.”
At that point, Masters saw no images at all, only brightness and darkness, which he used to help him get around in the house. One time he came home and depended on those bright and dark images to get to his bedroom. He entered the wrong room and hit his head over a china cabinet. After that, his mother moved things around so that would not happen again. He said his mother hardly ever moved anything unless it needed moving because of him. Masters relied heavily on his memory from the previous years when he did have his eyesight. This helped him to judge where he was in the house and where things were located.
Originally he was given no hope for better eyesight, so he proceeded to adapt to the world around him. “I just did the best I could,” he said. “In fact one time mother actually asked if I was faking it because I was doing so well. I guess she figured I was blind now and couldn’t do anything and that I would be knocking glasses over and all. Sometimes I would, but not that often.”
Masters has never let the loss of his eyesight hinder him. “Some things you just have to do a little bit differently,” he said. “You aren’t going to let it stop you from doing the same things. Sometimes you just have to figure out new ways to do them.”
Through advances in technology, Masters was given new hope. A few weeks ago he went to Nashville’s Vanderbilt hospital for cornea transplant surgery.
“My doctor in Johnson City at the eye clinic would always bring up that we could do a cornea transplant,” Masters said. “At one time he sent me to a cornea specialist in Johnson City but I thought she said if it didn’t take I could lose what sight I had. I knew one other person in town who had had cornea transplant and was having problems. I was thinking ‘I don’t think I want to fool with that right now.’ Joe Chambers (local optometrist and friend) was talking to me and told me that it couldn’t get worse with the surgery. I thought Well then it’s worth a chance.
“I had to change health insurance and with the new insurance I knew that Vanderbilt was in network. When the doctor said I can send you to Duke or Vanderbilt, I said ‘Let’s go to Vanderbilt.’ There, they did the testing they could. Before, I could not see out and they could not see in. So they couldn’t see my retina to see what shape it was in,” he said.
They gave him the earliest date they could do the procedure. “I remember them putting the stuff in the IV to relax me and then rolling me down the hall,” Masters said. “Before we got to the operating room I was gone. That was about 9 o’clock. The next thing I knew it was noon.” The procedure was considered outpatient and he was released to go home.
“They put 16 nylon sutures in and they will stay in for a year,” he said. “Those sutures keep the cornea from operating properly now but it should relax and be able to do so after the sutures come out. He said that sometime in the future they may try glasses or contact lenses to see if that helps, since I don’t have a lens inside now to help focus the light on the retina. They are not really saying what I am going to be able to see.
“Now, if the light is right I can see shadows, which I could not see before. In fact, the day after the surgery we were waiting for a cab and standing under an overhang. Just the way the light was, I could see people passing in front of me and that was the first time I had been able to see that in 27 years. Some people think it may take time for my brain to readjust because I haven’t seen in 27 years,” Masters said.
He said his brain will have to relearn everything but if he can just see enough to know shapes in front of him, so it keeps him from running into things, it will be a big improvement.
Masters has never been one to let his lack of eyesight hinder him. His passion is music and he has continued being active in that field. Before losing his sight, he was a high school band director in Virginia for several years, taught at East Tennessee State University for several years, taught private lessons around the Tri-Cities and played in the Johnson City and Kingsport symphonies. He has a Master’s in tuba from the University of Michigan.
He is a member of the choir at Erwin Presbyterian Church, where he is also an elder and has served on the session several times. He usually heads up the church missions program. He occasionally teaches Sunday school, attends Bible study, prayer group, the Clinchfield Senior Adult Center, is a member of a local barbershop chorus and barbershop quartet.
Masters’ mobility is aided a lot by the fact he originally went for rehab in Morristown at a center for the blind. They taught him how to walk using a cane. “They would take me downtown and teach me one route which involved turning several corners, crossing streets and that kind of thing,” he said. “It was down around the courthouse in Morristown. One day the instructor said ‘Listen for the telephone pole.’ The way the sound bounced, it was just a few feet away and there was the building and I stopped and said ‘Is that it?’.
“Just the way the sound bounced with something as small as a telephone pole,” he continued. “Some people that worked down there, that was the way they got around, instead of using a cane to count the sidewalk. They would just listen for the telephone poles.
“Some people think because you lose one sense all of the others are going to take over but that’s not really the case,” Masters said. “You have to train the others. You have to pay more attention and listen better.”
He learned braille through a correspondence course and uses that for some of his reading and studying. He also finds the use of his computer very helpful. “I spend about all of my time now on the computer,” he said. “I have software that talks to me. I still type, but it tells me what’s on the screen.”
Originally, Masters had his parents at home to help. He went with them daily to the family business, Home Furniture on Gay Street, Erwin. Since their deaths, he has a caregiver to help during the day. The caregiver takes him for appointments and to the Clinchfield Senior Adult Center as well as looking out for his needs while there. But, for the most part, Masters is very independent.
As for now, it is a waiting game to see how his vision improves. Last week he went for a follow up appointment and the doctors said everything was doing well and declared it a success. It rained at one point on the trip and he could see the shadows of the wipers moving back and forth across the windshield. He is happy to see the new images he does and hopes for a brighter future as his healing continues.