Hospital Clinic Performs First Ever Cornea Transplant PPRMC

For Divide resident Peggy King, the high country scenery often consisted of a black curtain, a blank wall, and many blurry mirages, with the prospects of seeing getting worse.

In essence, the right eye of the 81-year-old woman was incurring a state of near blindness. And unfortunately, most specialists gave her little positive prognosis and mostly took the attitude, “You are too old for major surgery,” and, “You are just going to have to live with your bad eyes.”

“I was having a lot of problems and wasn’t getting any help, recalled King, who has lived in Teller County for eight years. She admits good eye sight isn’t something she has enjoyed in recent decades, encountering eye-related woes for at least 40 years.

King searched for alternatives in Colorado Springs and other big cities with little success. Meanwhile such previous every day delights, as enjoying the mountain scenery, wall paintings, pictures, movies or even family gatherings, were getting much harder. Plus, arranging transportation to the Springs and other places where most major eye specialists are located, further compounded her problems. Due to the resident’s condition, she can’t drive a vehicle.

Finally, King discovered a glimpse of hope six months ago when she hooked up with the Lee Eye Institute, which specializes in a full realm of eye-related treatment, including cataract surgery, corneal transplants, glaucoma, diabetes, macular degeneration, and LASIK surgery. Luckily for Teller residents, The Lee Eye Institute set up shop at the Pikes Peak Regional Hospital’s Specialty Clinic on a part-time basis a year and a half ago. It was part of a movement by the hospital and medical center to offer more specialized services.

King then took advantage of a new innovative operating procedure, enabling the Teller resident to receive a transplant of a key section of the cornea, considered the clear front window of the eye. The operation was done to replace the back portion of her cornea that gave her trouble in the past and was no longer functioning, creating extremely blurry vision. The cornea in default was previously implanted about 10 years ago during an earlier surgery.

Cornea transplants, which aren’t unusual in Colorado Springs, replace damaged tissue with a healthy cornea that has been donated. These consist of bodily parts and tissue from individuals who have died or been fatally injured. The King procedure took on extra meaning, though, since it became the first cornea transplant procedure done at the Pikes Peak Regional Hospital and in Teller County.

So in some ways, it represented a bold venture for the hospital and the Lee Eye Institute.

Lee Eye Institute leaders, though, say these operations are part of a growing trend that may infiltrate the Teller high country, especially with the region’s burgeoning growth of seniors.

“It is a not an evasive process at all. We use the top procedures,” said Dr. James Lee, founder of the Lee Eye Institute. He says the cornea transplant operation isn’t that time-consuming and doesn’t involve any patient discomfort. In King’s case, a key cornea section was replaced with new tissue. The procedure involved a surgical incision that was achieved fairly quickly and without any pain.

And better yet, the recovery process is much faster under the new innovative operation that now often replaces problem-causing tissues and cells, instead of the entire cornea. With these transplant procedures, experts say the success rate is much better and individuals experience better vision and their cornea, which almost acts as a camera lens for the eye, starts healing almost immediately. Dr. Lee, however, cautions that the procedures used for each patient often vary.

For King, the new operation procedure turned into a miracle. Seventy five to 80 percent of her original vision was restored. King still has trouble seeing numbers from a long distance, but has much clearer vision

“Dr. Lee has been a savior for me with this new procedure,” said King, who admitted she almost was getting ready to throw in the towel, prior to connecting with the Lee Eye Institute.

The new transplant operation also served as a great way to reward King, who actually donated money to the Pikes Peak Regional Hospital project over the years and strongly supported the community’s push for a medical center. “We all had a big party and celebration when this hospital was built,” quipped King.“It has been a great facility for Teller County.”

The hospital actually opened its doors in the fall of 2007, but it has grown more than expected over the last year and a half and has added many special services, such as the Lee Eye Institute.

With a growing aging population in Teller County and the prospects of more retirees, based on new housing demographics (see related story), these new procedures could become more common, along with visits to ophthalmologists. Moreover, these types of eye doctor visits are more viable through most health insurance plans.

The Lee Eye Institute now treats about 40 patients a week at the Pikes Peak Regional Hospital. Besides its office in Teller County, the Lee Institute serves medical outlets in five other locations, including Colorado Springs, Calhan, Walsenburg and Hugo. Dr. Lee, a graduate of John Hopkins University, has appeared at leading ophthalmology conferences across the country and has spearheaded special research projects in this field. He started the Lee Eye Institute in 2007.

“Most of our patients are over the age of 55,” said Amanda Keller, marketing director for the Lee Eye Institute. According to Keller, people who have trouble with their eyesight are advised to see an ophthalmologist, especially as they grow older. “It is a good thing for people who have trouble with their eyes,” said Keller.

The Lee Eye Institute is open at the hospital’s Specialty Clinic on the second floor on Wednesdays. For more information, call 719-282-1211 or visit