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Published on September 04, 2014

New Corneal Transplant Procedure Offers Clearer Vision, Quicker Recovery Time

COLUMBIA, Mo. — For Betty Minor of Sedalia, blurry vision was a fact of life. The 75-year-old had resigned herself to coping with her deteriorating eyesight. She would only read large-print books and she needed someone to read her the menus at restaurants. Her prescription glasses did little to help.

For more than 35 years, Minor has lived with Fuch’s dystrophy, an inherited degenerative condition that causes vision loss. In July, Minor underwent a new corneal transplant procedure that changed her life.

“I began to accept the fact that I was losing my eyesight,” Minor said. “After hearing of this new type of procedure, I found renewed hope.”

Minor underwent a state-of-the-art corneal transplant procedure known as a Descemet membrane endothelial keratoplasty, or DMEK. She was the first patient within University of Missouri Health Care to undergo the surgery.

“DMEK is a corneal transplant procedure that replaces a thin membrane on the inner side of the cornea,” said Rick Fraunfelder, M.D., M.B.A., a fellowship-trained corneal disease specialist at MU Health Care. “In most cases, traditional corneal transplant methods can only restore vision to 20/30, but with DMEK, patients can achieve perfect 20/20 vision with a recovery time as short as a few weeks.”


Using donated corneas, Fraunfelder replaces the Descemet membrane inside the eye. This thin, cellophane-like membrane contains cells known as endothelial cells. These cells are responsible for pumping fluid out of the cornea to keep it clear. When these cells deteriorate, vision becomes gray and hazy, and can eventually result in blindness.

In a conventional corneal transplant procedure, the entire thickness of the cornea is replaced. In DMEK procedures, however, only the innermost corneal layers are replaced. By grafting a thinner cornea transplant, the patient’s cornea remains closer to its original condition, resulting in a quicker recovery. Because a thinner cornea graft is used, light is less distorted as it comes through the cornea.

Most patients who are candidates for the less-invasive DMEK procedure suffer from Fuch’s dystrophy. Though the condition rarely affects individuals under the age of 50, it’s estimated that one in every 2,000 people may be living with the condition.

“One of the first indicators that Fuch’s dystrophy is advancing is cloudy vision when you first wake up,” said Fraunfelder, who serves as the chair of the Department of Ophthalmology at the MU School of Medicine and medical director of MU Health Care’s Mason Eye Institute. “When your eyes are closed, the moisture in the cornea doesn’t evaporate. This generally starts to clear up as the day goes on, but if left untreated, the condition can eventually cause blindness.”

Other symptoms of Fuch’s dystrophy include:

  • Eye pain
  • Eye sensitivity to light and glare
  • Seeing colored halos around lights
  • Worsening vision throughout the day

Minor had the procedure done in her left eye, which has been her weaker eye. Minor expects to undergo a DMEK transplant procedure in her right eye later this year.

“My eyesight has improved greatly, and I’m looking forward to having the procedure done in my right eye,” Minor said. “My vision has gotten stronger each day, and I’m confident that I will be able to read again and see my grandchildren play ball.”

For more information about the procedure, please call (573) 882-1506.