ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
You've heard of an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. How about a tooth for an eye? That's the trade that a Mississippi woman made to regain her eyesight.
From member station WLRN in Miami, Kenny Malone has the story of a strange medical procedure, which doctors say has never been done in the U.S. before.
KENNY MALONE: Sixty-year-old Kay Thornton sits at a table in front of a growing audience in an auditorium at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. It's been a long journey for the Mississippi native who's been blind for the past nine years.
Ms. KAY THORNTON: If you all could take a week out and just keep your eyes closed for a week, walk around your house and just pretend you're blind for one week, it's amazing when you open your eyes back up.
MALONE: Kay was blind through the births of seven grandchildren. Her blindness was from Stevens-Johnson syndrome - a rare, life-threatening condition that causes outer layers of skin to separate from inner. In Kay's case, it left her corneas terribly scarred. She was blind and told nothing could be done. So, Kay's daughter began researching top hospitals and booked an appointment at Bascom Palmer in Miami, 1,000 miles from her home in Smithdale, Mississippi.
Ms. THORNTON: She just said, mama, I have you an appointment. So, Rick and I loaded the truck up and we came down to Miami.
MALONE: Kay spent two years doing failed grafts and transplants in Miami, when a cornea transplant expert began his own work at Bascom Palmer. Dr. Victor Perez was frustrated with cases of patients like Kay who are blinded by severe cornea damage. The rest of their eye was fine, but simply put, the lens of their camera was too dirty. He was lobbying to try out a foreign technique, when unprompted, a fellow doctor sent Kay through Dr. Perez's door.
Dr. VICTOR PEREZ (Ophthalmologist, Bascom Palmer Eye Institute): And Kay walked through my clinic, I saw her, and I told her, I know exactly what we're going to do with you.
MALONE: What he planned to do was something dreamed up by Italian doctors in the 1960s - pull out one of her teeth and transplant it into one of her eyes to help repair the damaged cornea. With no other option, Kay signed on. Dr. Perez assembled a team and for the next two years, they learned the procedure. They flew to Italy and flew Italian experts to Miami. They practiced with cadaver teeth and made trial versions of what they would do with Kay's tooth. Perez hoped it would be the greatest accomplishment of his life, and that he might be able to help the estimated 200 other patients like Kay who have severely damaged corneas. But if he botched it, the procedure would never catch on in the U.S.
Dr. PEREZ: And so many steps that things can go wrong. And, yeah, I had to live with the concept that if it didn't work, people would quit on it and might not even refer patients to me anymore.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MALONE: For all its complications, the procedure is actually pretty simple. A hole is cut in the damaged cornea, and a short acrylic tube is custom-made to allow light in, kind of like cutting a hole in the wall and sticking a telescope through. But without something to hold the tube in place, the system fails. That's where the tooth comes in. Tooth, bone and ligament have a better chance of living around the eye than a lot of other materials. So Perez removed Kay's canine tooth, also called - no kidding - the eyetooth. They sliced the root into a tiny plank and stuck the tube through the plank, then rested the plank-tube combination over the hole in her cornea. It has been three years since Kay met Dr. Perez.
Dr. PEREZ: And it was very - it was a humbling experience, Labor Day weekend, when we removed her bandage that she could see Rick, she could see the TV, and she could see the blue sky.
MALONE: Kay takes off her glasses. A tube like the end of a coffee stirrer pokes out through a tender-looking skin graft covering the rest of the eyeball and holding the tooth in place. The tiny tube darts around the room.
Ms. THORNTON: I can see some of your figures. The lights are so bright. If the lights were dimmer, I could see, you know, better.
MALONE: She turns to Dr. Perez.
Ms. THORNTON: I could see you up there at the podium.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. PEREZ: I'm glad.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MALONE: Dr. Perez says the vision in Kay's eye is about 20/70 right now. With a magnifying glass, she can read a newspaper. But over time and with glasses, her vision will be almost normal again. He estimates that there are about 200 patients like Kay, but says the treatment might also help Iraq War veterans with corneal scarring from explosion burns.
For NPR News, I'm Kenny Malone in Miami.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.