Gift restores sight to Michigan boy injured in fishing accident

'It's a gift that won't ever stop giving' said father

GRANT, Mich. – It was supposed to be a fun afternoon of fishing. 

Jacob and Katelyn Thompson, from Grant, have six kids that love to play outdoors. They were fishing together at a pond on their property when things suddenly took a terrifying turn for their then seven-year-old son Colton.

"My brother caught a fish, so I just sat down behind him, and he took a cast, and flew back and went right into my eye," said Colton Thompson.

"We heard Colton screaming, so we looked over and saw him holding his eye," said Katelyn Thompson. 

 They raced Colton to the hospital.

"You're thinking the worst. You feel helpless that you can't just make it go away," said Jacob Thompson. "Constantly you're praying that everything is going to turn out."

They say Colton was remarkably calm.

"I was in shock, so I didn't feel it too much," said Colton Thompson.

At the hospital, doctors discovered one of the hooks had sliced across the front of Colton's eye.

"Even after the stitches came out months later, it was just like that scar that was just right right through his line of vision, so it seemed to just keep getting worse after that," said Katelyn Thompson.

Colton plays football and is a wrestler. He started keeping his bad eye shut all the time.

"Our doctor in Grand Rapids suggested the possibility of a cornea transplant," said Katelyn Thompson.

Colton was referred to the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center in Ann Arbor.

"This is where we remove the diseased or damaged cornea and take a healthy donor cornea and stitch it into place," said said ophthalmologist Dr. Shahzad Mian. "then over time, as it heals, the vision can improve."

There is a unique quality to cornea transplants.

"One amazing thing about corneal transplants is that they do not require matching of tissue unlike other organ transplants because corneas don't have blood vessels like other types of organs that we receive," said Mian.

Five months after his accident, Colton received a cornea transplant. His vision has been steadily improving ever since.

"Now I can see a lot better," said Colton Thompson.

"He has a special contact lens he wears now and now he's 20/20," said Katelyn Thompson.

Colton wondered about the donor and wrote a letter to the donor family. It reads in part, "Thank you for donating a cornea for helping people see. Can you tell me how old that cornea is? What was the person like who donated it?"

"We actually got a response from the donor's family," said Katelyn Thompson. "It was a boy from Ohio, and it was right before his 12th birthday when he was in an accident. He just sounds like a really special kid, a lot like Colton actually. It just made it real. Like it was a real little boy, and it was just really special."

It's a sentiment shared by the staff at Eversight, the Ann Arbor-based non-profit responsible for recovering the eye tissue used for transplants and research.

"About 1200 people a year receive the gift of sight just in Michigan," said Diana Kern, vice president of philanthropy at Eversight. https://www.eversightvision.org/

Cornea transplants are actually the most common transplant procedure. Anyone can be a donor, regardless of age or eyesight. Donating has no impact on funeral plans.

"Having a cornea removed has no effect at all on anybody's services, open casket, the ability to do whatever you'd like to do," said Kern.

Corneas that aren't suitable for transplant can be used in research.

"Without those tissues, we won't be finding the cures from macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma," said Kern.

It's a cause that is very personal to Kern. 

"My father was blinded again by an accident, similar to Colton's situation. It wasn't a fish hook, but it was an accident. And he lost his sight and that meant he couldn't drive. He couldn't work, he couldn't do his hobbies. And when he received his cornea transplants, it changed our family," said Kern. "That gift of sight returned our family to its livelihood and returned my father to his joy."

If you're willing donate, Kern has this advice.

"Take out your license if you are a registered donor to talk to your family about that, because it makes it a whole lot easier if you do pass and it is your wish to be a donor that your family knows your intentions."

The Thompson family has a new appreciation for organ and tissue donation.

"I myself was always an organ donor. I never really thought about tissue because I always was like, 'Well, I don't want anybody to have my skin or my eyes.' But we don't need them anymore. So for sure I would, every part of me, if it has a chance to help somebody's life or save somebody's life. And everybody else in our family that wasn't organ and tissue donors, they certainly are now."

Colton is now nine years old and putting his new cornea to good use.

"With his sports with writing with reading with like riding bikes," said Katelyn Thompson. "It's the little things you don't think about until you don't have it."

Their family is forever grateful for the gift.

"It was awesome," said Colton Thompson. "It's special to donate your cornea and other stuff."

"It's just a present that'll be with him for the rest of his life. It's a gift that doesn't ever stop giving," said Jacob Thompson.

Colton's family hopes they can meet the donor's family someday to thank them in person.

"Lots of other lives were touched by this boy with other gifts that he was able to donate too and just like that one little piece of him made Colton's whole life," said Katelyn Thompson.

To join the Michigan Organ Donor Registry, click here.

To learn more about Eversight, click here.