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Byron Harden, Cornea Service Patient

“Now I can see what I’ve been hearing”


Byron Harden, UIC Cornea Service patientByron Harden, a laidback member of the Chicago band Blah Blah Blah, always puts on a good show for his rock fans. They would be surprised to learn that he has actually endured decades of little to no vision after multiple failed cornea transplants. However, this fall Harden received an artificial cornea transplant in his left eye at the University of Illinois Eye and Ear Infirmary (IEEI), which restored the vision in this eye from being functionally blind to 20/40.

“For a long time, I’ve relied on my ears, and now it’s a welcome thing that I can see the needles jumping in the studio, for example,” he says. “Now I can see what I’ve been hearing.”

A 36-year-old jazz, soul and rock musician, music producer and sound engineer from Beecher, IL, Harden has battled the consequences of Steven Johnson Syndrome since he was 7 years old, causing him to become functionally blind and necessitating countless cornea transplants— about seven to nine, estimates Harden. Indeed, Harden was blind from 7 to 16 year old, until he received his first cornea transplant in his left eye.

Each transplant seemed successful at first, but then his vision would eventually begin deteriorating again.

“This is a devastating condition; it is an immune response to certain medications that causes a lot of damage to mucous surfaces including the ocular surface,” says Jose de la Cruz, MD, Assistant Professor, Director of the Comprehensive Ophthalmology Services, and Director of the Artificial Cornea Program for the IEEI. “As a consequence, he has suffered severe impairment in his vision, multiple surgical procedures and the eventual loss of his right eye. But he remains very laidback with a great attitude on life.”
Dr. de la Cruz came into contact with Harden via his colleague in the Cornea Service, Joel Sugar, MD, Professor and vice-chair of the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences. Dr. Sugar initially saw Harden because of the deteriorating vision from his only seeing eye and then referred Harden to the Artificial Cornea Program for evaluation for a keratoprosthesis. Because Harden presented a very high risk of corneal graft failure, he was a candidate for keratoprosthesis.

“We were able to implant an artificial cornea, and he has gone from being functionally blind to 20/40 in his left eye, and now back to music!” says Dr. de la Cruz.

Harden says he felt his care at the IEEI was “stellar”. He appreciated the calm environment in the operating room, lack of attitude amongst the nurses, and everyone’s willingness to make him comfortable.

After his surgery, Harden has been able to read and drive without lenses or glasses on, drive at night for the first time, learn how to use computers and send e-mails, and participate in other day-to-day activities by himself that most people take for granted.

“My music is my life and now I can see things that I need to see: computer screens, instruments and people,” he says.

His surgery will be considered a success if he does not need another transplant in five years, he says. For now, his situation is considered volatile because his surgery only recently occurred. However, his vision should continue to get stronger as time goes on.

Harden notes that he persevered through his periods of blindness and other struggles by remaining positive and visualizing what he wanted to achieve in life.

“If you can stay upbeat and not be down, that’s what you will bring into your experience,” he says. “You have to be positive. Sometimes it’s forced, but 90 percent of the time it will be there.”


by Megan Pellegrini

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