Lions Clubs, Aspirus Wausau Hospital and Lions Eye BankDonate Corneal Transplant to 7-Year-Old
Wausau, WI - (August 27, 2007) - Sergeant John Kempen, United States Army, and the Lions clubs of Wisconsin could help a 7-year-old girl from Iraq see clearly for the first time in her life after she receives corneal transplant surgery next week. Kempen, stationed in Iraq from August 2005 to December 2006, noticed the girl, named Zahraa, couldn’t see well when he was tossing candy to her.
“We always threw candy to the kids and gave them the presents people sent from the U.S.,” said Sgt. Kempen, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division. “We were in Iraq for 14 months and soldiers got really bummed out so giving gifts to the kids cheered us up. The kids love it; and they really go after the candy, but Zahraa could never get any. She was holding her hands over her eyes in pain.”
Sgt. Kempen, now stationed at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks Alaska, took Zahraa to see his medic and then spoke to Iraqi doctors who said they couldn’t help her. He spoke to Zahraa’s father who said that she was born with a vision condition and all the doctors could do was give her eye drops that had little effect. Her father said Zahraa has felt like she has sand in her eyes ever since she was a baby.
“Zahraa has swollen corneas and blisters on the front of the cornea which is why she can’t see through them very well,” said Doctor Kevin Flaherty, M.D, who specializes in corneal external disease at the Eye Clinic of Wisconsin. “The front surface of her cornea is breaking down from the swelling which makes her uncomfortable and the blisters make her feel like there is a foreign object in her eye constantly, hence her description of the sand.”
“Zahraa’s vision is at 20/400, which means that with a lot of effort, she can barely make out the large ‘E’ on the eye chart,” Dr. Flaherty continued. “It’s like she’s looking through a very steamy window. She can see objects and shapes but she cannot make out anything clearly.”
A year ago Sgt. Kempen turned to the Lions clubs, known for their work to combat preventable blindness around the world, for help. His mother of Crandon, WI worked with the Crandon Lions Club to arrange for Zahraa to enter the U.S. to be evaluated by Dr. Flaherty at the Eye Clinic of Wisconsin.
“Through the help of the Lions clubs and Sgt. Kempen we’re hoping to help Zahraa see as normally as she can,” said Dr. Flaherty. “I am optimistic that surgery should improve things for her. She hasn’t had a clear cornea for many years, but she’s of an age where she still has the opportunity to have her vision improved.”
The Lions clubs of Crandon and Wausau, WI worked with Sgt. Kempen, his mother and Lions Clubs International to arrange for Zahraa to receive the corneal transplant. The corneas and surgery will be donated by the Lions Eye Bank of Wisconsin in Madison and Aspirus Wausau Hospital. The services will be donated by Dr. Flaherty and the Eye Clinic of Wisconsin.
“We are so happy that Zahraa and her grandmother are finally here. We have worked hard to make this happen,” said Frank Bocek, past president of the Crandon Lions Club. “Sgt. Kempen and his mother called us because they knew Lions fight blindness—and that if anyone could help Zahraa, it was the Lions. This was a real community effort and we thank Aspirus Wausau Hospital, the Lions Eye Bank and all the others who helped make this possible. We hope we can help Zahraa see well and make her eyes feel better, too.”
The Lions of Wisconsin were able to work through many channels to help Zahraa and her grandmother obtain American visas. Students from Crandon Elementary School raised money to help fund Zahraa’s travel to the U.S. A Wausau-based Lion and seasoned host family will house Zahraa and her grandmother for the duration of her stay in the U.S. which will last at least eight weeks.
Lions are well known for their work to end preventable blindness, which began in 1925 in response to a challenge from Helen Keller. Over the past 16 years, Lions have given $202 million in grant funding for sight-related projects such as cataract surgeries, building eye hospitals and clinics, vision testing in preschool and elementary schools, distributing sight-saving medication to prevent river blindness and training eye care professionals.
“The fact that the Lions were able to bring Zahraa to the U.S. alone is a miracle,” said Sgt. Kempen, who will visit Zahraa in Wisconsin during her recovery. “Now if they can help give her the gift of sight or even just stop the discomfort she feels in her eyes, all the hard work will be worth it.”