The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Friday March 24th

Hoping the End Is in Sight

Perfect strangers in the Chapel Hill area have rallied behind him.

His family, classmates and fellow church members have lent moral,

financial and spiritual support. A renowned surgeon has agreed to operate for free.

Now all that is left on 16-year-old Francisco's two-year journey toward regaining much of his sight is 15 minutes of state-of-the-art surgery.

The travel-weary Chapel Hill High School student spent Monday at Vanderbilt University Medical Center gearing up for the procedure today that will combat what his doctor calls the equivalent of terminal cancer for vision.

"I am excited, but I don't know what's going to happen," Francisco, whose last name has been withheld by his family, said during a preoperative information session. "I will wait and hope that I will see again."

If the surgery is successful, Francisco's vision in his right eye will be corrected to 20/50. His final operation is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. this morning and will be performed by Dr. Ming Wang.

Francisco lost his eyesight at the age of 10 in Mexico when he picked up and opened a bottle filled with sulfuric acid floating in a river. The bottle exploded and burned through his corneas, leaving him blind in both eyes.

"Chemical injuries are a very serious problem," said Wang, who is one of only three people in the nation to ever perform today's delicate procedure. "However, Francisco has proven himself to be very optimistic and strong - I think he will come out on top."

If today's surgery is successful, Francisco will undergo more operations to restore his left eye, which remains totally blind.

Francisco's road to recovery was delayed after funding ran out for his surgeries halfway into the process.

The delay in follow-up surgery caused his eye to re-perforate, and he underwent emergency surgery in November just to save his eye from degenerating beyond repair.

"He must have suffered some trauma where he had an actual hole in his eye and the inside was coming out," Wang said.

Chapel Hill High School students and teachers responded to a call for help from Francisco's teacher and mentor, Carole Klein, and raised more than $17,000 to fund his final surgery.

"We were able to raise the money that we needed in less than five weeks," she said. "It was a joy to do it, and I think many of the students have been inspired by Francisco."

Wang offered to perform Francisco's surgery for free - $17,000 was just the amount needed to use hospital facilities and transportation.

"I knew that Francisco was facing great difficulty because of his chemical injury, and I knew that he had no other chance to see," Wang said.

The surgery that Francisco will undergo today is an intricate process that requires cutting-edge medical technology.

The procedure involves forcing the eye to regenerate limbal cells, which surround the cornea and do not replace themselves, by using amniotic membranes to trick the eye. The membrane's presence causes the eye to react as it would before birth, creating new cells.

The entire surgery will be done under a microscope, and the procedure itself will take about 15 minutes.

Wang said he hopes Francisco's story will encourage people to recognize their responsibility toward those who cannot afford necessary health care services.

"One of the most challenging things is getting the public to recognize that we can and should help these people," he said.

Wang will remove the bandages from Francisco's eyes Wednesday afternoon. His sight in the right eye should be restored in two to three months.

Francisco said he hopes that his regained eyesight will allow him to give back to the community that assisted him in his time of need.

"My friends have done a real good job," he said. "I want to say thank you to everybody."

The City Editor can be reached



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