Miami-Dade County

Doctors perform Miami’s first mother-son corneal transplant

Miriam Aguirre Santos gave her son life. In her death, she gave him sight.

Aguirre Santos, 61, died Sept. 30 in Miami Beach after a heart attack, but not before repeating and writing down her final wish: that her eyes be used to restore her son’s vision.

Days later, doctors at Miami’s Bascom Palmer Eye Institute performed what they say is the first mother-son corneal transplant in the history of the institute or the Florida Lions Eye Bank. Juan Aguirre can see clearly out of his left eye for the first time since he was a boy.

“It’s like a whole new world has opened up,” Juan Aguirre, 39, said Thursday in an examination room at Bascom Palmer, part of the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. “I’m seeing things like I never did before. Everything is very, very colorful.”

Aguirre’s eyesight was damaged at age 5, when a drunken motorcyclist struck him as he walked with his family in their native Cuba. His left cornea became badly scarred, and Aguirre struggled to see out of that eye.

“The cornea is like the window of the eye,” said Dr. Guillermo Amescua, the ophthalmologist who operated on Aguirre. “Juan’s injury was like if you smashed the windshield of your car. It’s very cloudy and hard to see anything in front of you.”

Aguirre and his family moved to South Florida in 1980, about two years after the motorcycle accident. Despite Aguirre’s injury, he managed to forge a successful music career, living and performing in New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans and elsewhere.

He has recorded and released six albums of roots, Americana, blues and jazz under the name Diablo Dimes. His music — and growing collection of body art — appeared on several episodes of the South Beach-based reality show “Miami Ink,” and he has upcoming musical gigs booked at Art Basel and the South Beach Wine & Food Festival.

Aguirre said his eye disability made him a better guitarist.

“I couldn’t cheat when I was learning chords,” he said. “Even if I looked down to see where my fingers were, it didn’t do me any good.”

Aguirre relocated to White Post, Va., in the rural Shenandoah Valley about a year and a half ago with his wife and two children. His younger sister, 38, also lives there.

They found a place in Virginia for their mom, hoping that the slower pace and country air would be good for her. In recent years, Aguirre Santos had developed diabetes and high blood pressure and struggled with depression, her son said. Her husband died about 20 years ago.

“We thought we could get her to settle there, but she wasn’t having it,” Aguirre said. “She loved Miami too much to leave. She loved being with her friends here.”

So Miami is where she stayed. Her death late last month — on her birthday — set off an unlikely chain of events.

When doctors discovered that Aguirre Santos, an organ donor, had healthy corneas and a request to donate one to her son, the clock started ticking. Corneas can be preserved a maximum of seven days after death for a transplantation to be successful.

“When I talked to the family, I told them there was basically a slim-to-none possibility that everything would fall in line for this to work. It would take a miracle,” said Elizabeth Fout-Caraza, executive director of the Florida Lions Eye Bank. “His cornea could have been too scarred. He could have had a cold and we wouldn’t be able to operate. Any number of things could have happened.”

Aguirre flew from Virginia to Miami to be checked out by Amescua, who rushed back from Honduras, where he had been doing charity cataract surgeries for the poor. Aguirre said he couldn’t find an eye surgeon in Virginia who was ready to receive the cornea from Miami and proceed with the operation in time.

Amescua, who said he performs about 50 of the approximately 46,000 U.S. corneal transplants each year, operated on Aguirre on Oct. 1. He cut a hole about 8 millimeters in diameter from Aguirre’s left eye, then grafted the eye with a matching piece of Aguirre Santos’ cornea. Aguirre went home to Virginia the next day, after a follow-up exam.

“In about nine months to a year, he should be seeing better than he has his whole life,” Amescua said.

Aguirre returned to Miami this week for a checkup with Amescua and for his mother’s funeral on Sunday.

Other than her desire to give her son one of her corneas, Aguirre Santos’ decision to be an organ donor was unknown to her family. Aguirre, who also is a donor, said it was difficult at first for some of his relatives to accept.

Amescua said organ donation is stigmatized in many in Hispanic communities. While Hispanic Americans make up about 17 percent of the country’s population, only about 13 percent of organ donors in 2012 were Hispanic, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“She helped someone else with her other eye. She saved a woman’s life in Boca Raton with her liver. Her kidneys went to another person,” Aguirre said. “When my family saw all that she was able to do for other people in that way, they understood.”

Through the healing process, Aguirre said he often finds himself looking at a mirror, staring into his left eye.

“It’s wonderful and overwhelming at the same time,” he said. “I look at my face, and I know a part of her eyes are part of me now. I know that she’ll be with me forever.”