These boys have been on an emotional roller coaster for 11 years. They can see things for two weeks and then it's back to darkness again. This time, though, I am very confident they will do well, and their quality of life will be a lot better." --Dr. Jeffrey Robin, ophthalmological surgeon at Estelle Doheny Eye Medical Clinic at USC
On Sept. 13, 1974, that good quality of life that Dr. Jeffrey Robin is speaking of first ended for Ricky and Jimmy Sperry, then 9 and 13 years old.
School was starting in a week. The two youngsters had spent a pleasant summer with their family in the San Gabriel Valley, riding their bikes and roller-skating on the sidewalks and streets of Monrovia and Duarte. They read, watched TV, went fishing and to the beach and shared a common interest in cars.
In the backyard at their home, Jimmy Sperry often played catch with his younger brother. Jimmy had played Little League baseball. Now that he was old enough (Little League runs from ages 8 to 12), Ricky Sperry looked forward to playing in the league next summer.
But, in a split-second accident--when they dropped a cooler which had an attached ammonia-filled tank as they were carrying it from a construction site where their father, Fred, was working--Ricky and Jimmy Sperry were blinded.
The ammonia splashed over them when the cooler hit the ground, burning their faces and eyes.
"It was a refrigerated tank of ammonia, a unit in an old wine cooler," Jimmy Sperry said last week as he waited for an examination with his brother and mother, Beverly, at the Doheny Eye Clinic at County-USC Medical Center. "We were lifting the tank, we had it up to our knees and it slipped and blew out. It was like an explosion."
"Richard was smaller and closer to it," said Beverly Sperry. "He got the worst of the burn. Ricky's eye had to be completely sewed shut at one time. They both had perfect vision before. But this was so bad it even took the color out of the center of their eyes for awhile."
Jimmy Sperry turned 24 two weeks ago; his brother is now 20. In the 11 years that have passed, the Sperry brothers have had 16 operations. Ricky has had 10 cornea transplants, five in each eye. Jimmy, six, five in his left eye, one in the right.
Both brothers have been able to see only blurred images of things at a distance of a few inches. They were able to attend school by using a Visualtek (a television-like machine that magnifies words) at school.
Two weeks ago, Robin implanted a new cornea in each of the boys' right eyes, and so far, both transplants are successful.
But their fight for more normal vision is far from ended.
Restored sight from previous operations has lasted from a week to six months. Each time their bodies rejected the transplants.
Ricky Sperry's tenth operation last March restored his sight for only three days.
"That's what's always been the worst part," he said. "It's being able to see for awhile and then not. Taking it away again."
Lots of Sad Cases
"We see a lot of sad cases here," said Robin. "But this is the saddest, two brothers blinded from one incident. I am convinced something can be done for them. We do this routinely. Not everyone gets back to 20/20, but anything is better than shadow."
What worries Robin now is the possibility of the Sperry brothers rejecting the transplants once again.
"It's not going to be an easy course," he said. "The chances of success decrease after each rejection. But they're making great progress. It's like any other transplant, heart, kidney, with the possibility of rejection. But we're fortunate in cornea work that the body does not so often reject as in heart transplants."
After examining the Sperry brothers last Thursday, Robin was pleased with their progress. "Rick is 20/80, that's the best he's seen in years. And Jimmy is 20/50. They're both commenting that their vision is a lot brighter and better. They have very clear corneas and quiet eyes (not inflamed) right now."
Robin explained that there is no set time during which rejection of the transplants may occur. "But the first six months, as far as the grafts go, are extremely critical."
Still, he noted: "We had a woman come in here recently. She had had a transplant 25 years ago in New York, and it was now rejecting."
The boys have their eyes examined by Robin twice a week and have to put steroid drops in their eyes every hour and take steroid pills to reduce the chance of rejection and infection. Corneas used in transplants must be removed from donors within 12 hours after death, Robin said. "Then we place them in a certain solution of nutrients and antibiotics and we can keep them viable in that for three days. There is research being done now that will keep them for two months."