Savoring the Little Things
Michelle Wilder regains her vision — and her zest for life
Michelle Wilder of Live Oak doesn’t take a single one of these actions for granted. There was a time in her life when each one required painstaking concentration or was simply impossible.
A lifetime of vision problems and two failed corneal transplants left Wilder nearly blind until a Boston Keratoprosthesis, or KPro, procedure performed by UF ophthalmologist Dr. Sonal S. Tuli restored Wilder’s vision and quality of life.
Wilder says witnessing her grandson’s birth will remain one of her proudest memories.
“If I didn’t get this procedure done, I wouldn’t have been able to see his face,” she says. “I can’t even imagine not being able to see that he looks just like his mother. He’s beautiful.”
Born in 1973 with cataracts, Wilder has endured a medical history marred with vision complications. A surgery removed her cataracts at age 6, but she was required to wear oversized glasses throughout her childhood. At 19, she underwent an intraocular lens implant — this synthetic lens replaces the focusing power of the natural lens, which is surgically removed. Then, a virus damaged her cornea. Glaucoma resulted, leaving her almost blind, so she underwent two corneal transplants. Her body rejected both. She and Tuli, chair of the department of ophthalmology at the UF College of Medicine, were at an impasse.
“I had my pity party. I went from being a Girl Scout troop leader and active in church to being nothing and staying at home. The walls were closing in,” she says. “I felt so useless, thinking ‘Why me?’”
Wilder recalls parking a barstool inches from the television set, watching her daughter graduate from high school behind binoculars, and having to be led to the bathroom at every rest stop she visited on her family’s trip to North Carolina. Still, her spirit persevered.
“I was in the front row of my Zumba classes so I could see the instructor, but I was there,” she says. “I used a magnified sheet of glass to help my daughter with her homework.”
Tuli didn’t give up, either. Instead, she flew to Boston to train under the doctor who invented the Boston KPro, now in his 90s. In this procedure, a donor cornea is sandwiched between a plastic cornea and a titanium ring and attached to the patient’s eye.
“The body doesn’t reject the KPro because it’s made of artificial, inert materials,” Tuli explains.
In March 2013, Wilder underwent this procedure. Her damaged cornea was replaced by a clear artificial cornea, transforming her deep brown iris to a bright blue ring. She could read 20/60 nearly immediately after the operation.
“When I opened my eyes for the first time afterward, it was a moment of awe,” she says. “Even the doctor was surprised by how well I was seeing.”
“Being able to offer her the Boston KPro was so wonderful,” Tuli says. “This has been sort of a miracle for all of us.”
Tuli’s commitment to her patients stems from her deep passion for ophthalmology, allowing her to help change her patients’ lives. She says corneal diseases are more common and debilitating than most realize.
“People like Michelle, who are otherwise very functional members of society but can’t see their children’s faces — it breaks my heart,” she says. “If you look at what people fear most, after dying, it’s losing their vision. The ability to give people their vision back is amazing and I am very thankful for it.”
Wilder says this experience taught her the capacity of her inner strength. When other people may have given up on finding a solution, she and Tuli persevered until the solution presented itself.
“You never know how strong you are until you’re put in a situation like this,” she says.