FREEPORT, Texas - A special story of tragedy and triumph after a man in Freeport lost his life but was able to give the gift of sight to a mom in Florida. We got to witness the moment when the two families met virtually.
It was all made possible by CorneaGen, which helped pull off the corneal transplant.
The President of CorneaGen, Bernie Iliakis, first started by introducing the families. He had encouraged them to write each other. It usually ends at that, but they took this one step further after both families showed interest in meeting.
Emotional moments for both families as the Tichacek's from Freeport look into Kelly Bennett's eyes for the first time, after their loving 32-year son and brother suddenly lost his life from a heart attack but had signed up to be an organ donor. His cornea was able to save Kelly's eyesight.
"Thank you guys so much for meeting with me. I'm so happy to get this opportunity to meet. I know not many people get this, and there truly are not even enough things I can say about how thankful I am for the donation and also to get to meet with you and to learn more about him," states Kelly.
"I'm very glad and grateful that even after my brother not being here was able to help you, because that is one thing that he would do, is give you the shirt off his back," says Trey's brother, Mark.
"Seeing you, knowing who Trey is and seeing his picture, is so meaningful to me. It makes me feel even more grateful about it," states Kelly.
Kelly is a lawyer and was a busy mother of three when the unthinkable happened to her eye.
"Two Decembers ago, I essentially had an eye infection. But it's an amoeba, that a lot of times you would find in freshwater. It's even in tap water, so somehow I contracted it. It basically gets in your eye and eats away at the cornea and it's very, very rare," explains Kelly.
Her doctor also joined the special meeting to share more about the transplant, as she was able to work between CorneaGen and Lions Eye Bank of Texas to make it happen.
"Kelly's cornea had a big scar right in the center, which was essentially causing her to not see anything out of that eye. So what I did is punch a circular hole in Kelly's cornea to remove the scar, and then I punched the same size hole in the donor cornea and I stitched it in place," explains Dr. Helayna Brown.
Before the transplant, Kelly says she was miserable and could barely function.
"I was on this bucket of prescription pain medications, I was on eye drops 24 hours a day, multiple pain medications and it didn't touch the pain, so a very awful sickness. That really is not just an eye sickness, but a whole-body sickness, where I couldn't be out, I couldn't be in the light. I had to be in a dark room. I couldn't drive. I couldn't eventually see out of the eye. I was nauseous and sick for almost an entire year before I got the transplant," exclaims Kelly.
Trey's gift of a cornea changed everything. She says it truly gave her life back! She had plenty of questions for the Tichacek's and found out everything from Trey's favorite artists - Merle Haggard and Kid Rock - to how he loved karaoke, BBQ, and travel. Kelly's entire family is eternally grateful.
"It's difficult to describe how grateful we are, but as her husband, this was awful to go through for us, so thank you a million times over. We can never thank you enough," says Tony.
We were able to talk to each family after that momentous meeting.
"I'd say it was emotional for sure! Because of my brother, she's looking back at me, so I guess in a sense it's my brother looking at me. I know that there's somebody that can see because of him and it's kind of like he's still getting to see things through someone else's eyes. So just a way to remind us that he's still here with us," states Mark.
Since Trey didn't get to fulfill his dream of one day having children, the Tichacek's say it comforts them knowing Kelly gets to see her own kids through his sight. Kelly recalls the first time she could see her son again, as he played games with her for months, holding up his fingers, to see if she could see them.
"I could see his face, I could see his fingers, and it was just the most beautiful thing to be able to look through that eye and to see him," smiles Kelly. She says he just couldn’t believe it!
Kelly's doctor took time to reassure the Tichacek's that Trey's gift of sight went to the right person.
"I’ve been working closely with Kelly while treating her and have really gotten to know her. I hope it's comforting to you guys to know that Kelly couldn't be more deserving of Trey’s cornea. She was never worried about herself. She was always worried about how she was going to take care of her family and her kids. I hope you guys know that you couldn't have had a better person receive Trey's cornea," states Dr. Brown.
The Tichacek’s definitely thanked her for that comment. Both families agree, this was a healing connection. The families do plan to stay in touch and even talked about meeting in person.
Almost 60,000 corneas were transplanted last year, but more are always needed, as 100,000 people are on a waiting list for all types of organs.
It's organ transplant awareness month. If you’d like to learn more about it: https://www.donatelife.net