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A SIGHT FOR SORE EYES

For the first time in more than 20 years, Steve Metz today will enjoy the sights of Christmas morning along with the sounds and smells: the lights and ornaments on the tree, his wife Suzanne's rosy cheeks and, when he looks out, the decorations on homes in his Lancaster neighborhood.

The joy for Suzanne, Metz's mother, Rose, and his seven siblings will be in simply watching his face light up.

Yes, it's going to be a truly bright and colorful holiday for this man who lived in a blur for so long, able to make out only the vaguest shapes and colors, before receiving an early Christmas present in September -- the gift of sight.

Metz's vision, which began to deteriorate after his eyes were burned in a 1976 chemical accident, was restored to the right eye in a remarkable new type of surgery at Erie County Medical Center. His left eye had been removed after it became infected following a series of operations in 1985.

The last 2 1/2 months have had a gee-whiz quality for the 43-year-old businessman, who can once again clearly distinguish people, places and ordinary things he last saw sharply as a 20-year-old. Not to mention such new delights as the faces of his 19 nieces and nephews.

"It's nice to see all the Christmas lights the neighbors put up. I had no idea how beautiful they are, Metz said.

Another bonus: His and Suzanne's first child is due on Valentine's Day.

"I expected improved vision, but not this. It has gotten better and better and better," said the former Suzanne Belfour, who met Metz six years ago and married him in 1996.

The Metzes credit their sunny outlook to Dr. James J. Reidy, who heads the ECMC ophthalmology clinic and the hospital medical staff. Metz was referred to Reidy in 1997 by Dr. Donald Young, who performed regular eye scans on Metz through the years, as a possible candidate for limbal cell transplant surgery. That entails transferring stem cells from the white area next to the cornea of a healthy eye to the damaged eye.

The procedure was developed about two years ago and is now performed perhaps two dozen times a year worldwide. Under Reidy, ECMC has become one of the few U.S. hospitals to offer the operation.

Reidy had done transplants in which limbal cells were moved from one eye to the same patient's other eye. But Metz presented a new challenge. Because his left eye was gone -- replaced years before by a prosthesis -- repairing the badly damaged right cornea would require finding donor tissue.

"The problem in his case was scar tissue," Reidy said. When the limbal cells around the cornea were destroyed, the corneal surface became rough and irregular.

Metz had barely been introduced to Reidy when the specialist asked, "How many siblings do you have?"

"Seven," Metz answered.

"I think I have an operation for you."

The surgeon knew that the odds were that Metz's brother, Jim, and six sisters -- Johanna Coleman, Lorraine DeVries, Noreen Williams, Michelle McGowan, Suzanne Throm and Maria Martin -- were the most promising potential sources of matching tissue.

"Most candidates don't have a living, related donor. Mathematically, there is a much greater chance of success," Reidy said. All seven siblings quickly submitted samples. In the end, only Martin's eye tissue matched her brother's -- perfectly, no less.

"It was a fortunate series of circumstances, Reidy said.

So the stage was set for Buffalo's first limbal cell transplant from a donor, and one of the few procedures of its type attempted anywhere.

During the Sept. 8 twin surgery, two tiny rectangular patches of limbal tissue were removed from one of Martin's eyes and rushed to a neighboring operating room, where they were sewn around Steve Metz's right cornea, from which Reidy had removed the scar tissue.

The entire process took just one hour.

With the help of anti-rejection drugs, the transplanted stem cells, which Reid describes as "essentially immortal; they can grow forever," soon began to work their healing magic, creating a clear, smooth cornea surface.

For Metz and his loved ones, the change has been startling.

"It's amazing," Suzanne Metz said. "He lived 23 years hoping for something to happen. I really never felt it would happen. I thought, 'This is just how things are going to be.'

"Now, it's just getting better and better."

A self-confident, irrepressible man who never let blindness defeat him, Metz nevertheless acknowledged that he once gave up hope of ever seeing clearly again.

After the accident, which he is reluctant to discuss in detail, Metz was "in tremendous pain for six years. My eyes burned so badly it would keep me awake at night.

"It took several years for my vision to decrease to the point where I could see only hand motion, but I really should have been walking with a cane within two years."

The low point followed the series of surgeries performed in Pittsburgh nine years after the injury. The outcome was a fungus infection that eventually cost him the left eye.

"I had always felt there was hope. But after those operations, I thought, 'It really isn't going to happen,' " Metz said.

Still, he picked himself off the canvas.

"I did what I should have done 15 years earlier -- find ways to be more productive, anyway. I still had some partial sight, and I ended up working with what I had."

The self-help regimen included closed-circuit television in his home, which enabled him to read negative images of printed characters enlarged 60 times.

"You can only read for a little while because it makes you nauseous," he said.

Metz also threw his athletic body into snorkeling and scuba diving, among other pursuits. In May, he entered his first marathon, the Ford Buffalo race, finishing the 26.2 miles in 4 1/2 hours.

"I should have become more computer-literate, but I've managed to sneak through," he said.

Added Suzanne: "He's a really determined person. The only thing his condition really stopped him from doing was driving."

Now, driving and learning to use the computer are merely things on Metz's to-do list. His home already is piled high with TV sets, VCRs and books.

There is no longer a risk of infection, and so far, there is no sign that the repaired eye is rejecting the transplanting tissue, Reidy noted. With glasses, the patient should pass his driver's test hands-down, the surgeon said.

"Some patients eventually need a corneal transplant. Steve's vision is so good, he probably won't need one," Reidy added.

From Metz's perspective, the future looks rosy indeed.

"Until I met Dr. Reidy, I didn't think I'd ever get to this point. But people who know me don't feel sorry for me. It's been rough, but I've still had a pretty good life -- a lot of fun."

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