Back in 1979, Miriam Aguirre Santos was walking with her 5-year-old son Juan and his younger sister in their hometown of Holguin de Oriente in Cuba. Suddenly, a motorcycle driver swerved, striking Juan in the head and leaving him with a scar on the cornea of his left eye.
Soon after, the Santos family moved to the U.S., and Juan grew up to be a successful musician, husband, and father despite the poor vision in his damaged eye. Through the decades, his mother—a strong believer in organ donation—dreamed of giving one of her corneas to her son, and wrote down her wish in a personal journal. After she died of a heart attack September 30 on Miami Beach, a dedicated team of professionals from the Florida Lions Eye Bank and the Miller School’s Bascom Palmer Eye Institute combined their expertise to make her dream come true.
On October 8, Guillermo Amescua, M.D., assistant professor of ophthalmology at Bascom Palmer, performed the first mother-son corneal transplant in South Florida history. After a recent checkup, Juan Aguirre, 39, said his vision is already improving. “I can see much more clearly without the constant gloomy haze,” he said. “Now, when I pick up my guitar or the piano I can finally see what my left hand is doing without turning my head. It’s just a wonderful experience.”
A professional musician, Aguirre lives in rural White Post, Virginia, with his wife, Cozette, and their two children, Sofia and Lucien. He has recorded six albums in various musical genres under the name Diablo Dimes, and will appear at Art Basel Miami Beach and the South Beach Wine & Food Festival.
Both he and his sister Janette were surprised when the Florida Lions Eye Bank informed them of their mother’s wish to donate her cornea. Since corneas must be transplanted within just a few days of the donor’s death, it takes a rare combination of circumstances for a family transplant to take place, according to Elizabeth Fout-Caraza, executive director of the Florida Lions Eye Bank, which has been located at Bascom Palmer since both institutions were founded in the early 1960s.
“Because corneal tissues can’t be frozen, a transplant must be done in seven to 10 days,” said Fout-Caraza. “Fortunately, Aguirre Santos was a registered donor, which made it much easier for her family members to help get the process started.”
When an ophthalmologist couldn’t be found near Aguirre’s home in Virginia, he flew to Miami for an evaluation by Amescua, who returned from a volunteer eye surgery mission trip to Costa Rica to meet with the musician.
“While corneal transplant surgery has been done successfully for decades, not every patient is a candidate,” said Amescua. “Fortunately, Juan turned out to be a suitable recipient, and his mother’s cornea was in excellent condition, so we went ahead with the surgery the next day.”
In addition to enjoying his improved vision, Aguirre is hoping that more South Floridians—especially Hispanics—follow his mother’s example and become organ donors. “I’ve been a donor for many years,” he said. “It’s a way for me to help others after I’m gone.”
Each year, the Florida Lions Eye Bank facilitates about 700 corneal transplants from organ donors, according to Fout-Caraza. In fact, Aguirre Santos’ second cornea was transplanted in a Miami woman, helping to restore her vision, while her donated liver was transplanted in a woman in Boca Raton.