Power family photo

Power and her son Jacob are shown in a family photograph.

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff

Jake Power's most distinguishing feature was his bright blue eyes. 

"It's the first thing anyone noticed about him," said Ashley Power, his mother, who described the boy's eyes as a clear, sky blue. 

The 8-year-old boy from Jordan died in an accident in 2013. Afterward, Ashley was approached by doctors at the hospital asking if she would donate his corneas. She said yes. 

"It really wasn't a decision. I didn't even have to think about it," she said. "He was the most giving kid. It's what he would have wanted to do."

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Ashley Power

Ashley Power shows a sketch of her son Jacob, who died at the age of 8, in 2013.

It seemed particularly appropriate to Ashley and those who loved him that Jake's most distinguishing physical feature would be what lived on after his death.

"I'm glad we decided to donate his corneas," she said.

Donation

Before Jake's accident, Ashley had never given the practice of organ donation a thought. She certainly wasn't aware that corneas could be donated. That's not uncommon, said John Martinez, an area representative for SightLife, a global nonprofit that specializes in corneal transplants. 

The cornea is the transparent tissue that covers the front of the eye, sitting over the iris and pupil. Damage to the cornea or disease that causes it to inflame or become cloudy can result in varying degrees of blindness. A cornea transplant is often the only way to treat damaged or diseased corneas and restore sight. 

Cornea transplants are a relatively new development in the world of organ transplantation. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s Byron Smith, with the Eye Clinic Surgicenter in Billings, was a young eye surgeon completing his residency at Trinity Lutheran Hospital in Kansas City. 

At the time, if a patient needed a new cornea, it was the doctor who hustled to find one and perform the transplant. There was no organized system of recovering corneas from those who had died and then connecting them with the patients who needed them.  

"So I would take it upon myself," Smith said.

Smith took every cornea transplant procedure he could; no specific training for cornea transplantation existed, he said. 

"It took me nearly 10 years to learn," he said. Smith figures during the past 30 years he's performed between 1,500 and 2,000 cornea transplants. 

In the early days, the corneas themselves deteriorated quickly. Doctors usually had 12 hours to transplant the cornea after it had been recovered, Smith said.

That changed in the early 1990s. A medical company created a liquid solution in which doctors could store the corneas, preserving them for up to 10 days, Smith said. The development allowed groups like SightLife to expand their operations. 

These days, SightLife has trained representatives that work closely with hospitals and meet with grieving families to discuss the option of donating corneas. The group also has a stable of technicians specially trained to work with hospitals and morgues to recover the corneas.

It's one of the ways cornea recovery and transplants are unique. The recovery of all other organs from the body requires a surgeon.

Improving sight

In 1984, Herman Corletto was a toddler in Honduras walking through a crowded marketplace with his family on Christmas Eve. He's not sure how it happened, but he and his sister were walking through a fireworks stand when the whole place erupted in sparks and flame. 

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Herman Corletto

Cornea transplant recipient Herman Corletto lives and works in Cody, Wyo.

He was surrounded by exploding fireworks as the stand burned. He ended up on the ground, and his father found him by recognizing his shoes. When he pulled his son out, Corletto had burns all over his hands and face. His eyes were badly damaged. 

"I should probably be blind," he said. 

His father was a neurosurgeon and had a colleague in Colombia who was pioneering cornea transplantation. The family flew down and stayed in the country while they waited for the operation. Both eyes needed cornea transplants, but it was his left eye that was most damaged. 

Those early surgeries were successful at the time, but were rudimentary. For most of Corletto's childhood he wore "Coke bottle glasses" to see. He moved to New Orleans as a teenager and then to Cody, Wyoming, four years ago, after completing college. Two years ago, he received a third cornea transplant on his left eye. 

"A third transplant is it," he said. "You don't really go for a fourth."

Cornea transplants change the shape of the eyeball; they're literally sewn on, requiring 24 tiny sutures. After a third transplant, the eye has changed shape enough that the cornea no longer fits. 

Corletto is confident he won't need anymore. His sight is the best its ever been and it's allowed him to work in his chosen field. Corletto is a manufacturing engineer at Cody Laboratories. 

As a child he wasn't really aware that his eye operations — that a cornea transplant — meant someone had died so that he could have the procedure that improved his sight. Now, it's something he thinks about all the time. 

"You have a tiny piece of another person with you," he said. "It weighs on you."

Connecting

SightLife arranged Corletto's more recent cornea transplant. The group offers to anonymously connect the donors' families and the recipients, usually through notes or letters that they exchange. It was something Corletto wanted to do, but it took him a while before he found he could do it. 

His last transplant came from an Iraqi war veteran who, after he had returned home, was killed in a carjacking.

"It took a while, but I finally sat down and wrote a letter," he said. 

He heard from the family. They wrote to Corletto, explaining that donating their son's corneas had brought them comfort as they worked through their grief. 

Being able to correspond has helped Corletto process it all emotionally. 

"It's a feeling of just being grateful," he said. "More than anything I feel grateful."

Ashley Power knows she'll write those letters when she's ready. 

"There's so many things to be thankful for, to be grateful for," she said. 

Jake was a helper. His classroom teachers would always comment about it and Ashley saw it all the time at home. Once, when they were at a rodeo in town, Jake noticed a stadium employee cleaning up the garbage dropped by the spectators. 

Jake walked over and asked if he could help her clean up. 

"He was sweet," she said. "He was so sweet."

After the accident, Jake's corneas were given to a 19-year-old and a 40-year-old. Ashley thinks about them a lot. She wonders what their lives are like and how they've changed because of the donation of Jake's corneas. She likes the notion that their lives are better now because of her son.

"He still helping people," she said. "There's a still a piece of him alive."

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