Debra Astrug was struggling. She couldn’t read or drive, she worried about crossing the street to get the mail, and she couldn’t draw.

“I’m an artist, and I couldn’t draw. I couldn’t at all,” said the 57-year old Elgin woman, whose vision had been deteriorating for six years, becoming blurry as the result of graft versus host disease, which was a side effect of a successful bone marrow transplant from her sister in 1996 to treat cancer.

“It’s like I was going blind. Basically everything was becoming just shapes rather than defined. I couldn’t see anything clearly,” Astrug said. “Even baking something . . . my daughter had to put on my stove “On” and “Off” with huge print so I would be able to see it.”

Astrug needed another transplant, this time of corneal stem cells from a living donor to fix her limbal stem cell deficiency, which causes the cornea to be covered with abnormal tissue. She underwent the transplant in March 2013 at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood and now has near-perfect vision with a therapeutic lens.

Astrug’s sister would have been an ideal candidate to donate the tissue, but she died in 2005 from stomach cancer. Next best would be her three adult children, Jessica, Lauren and Peter Astrug, all of whom were willing to donate to their mother, a widow.

Jessica, 31 and the oldest, lives closest to her mother in Pingree Grove and would drive her where she needed to go. Logistically, it made the most sense for her to donate the two pieces of tissue needed to correct her mother’s eyesight.

“She’s always been there for me. She has gone through a lot in her life,” Jessica said. “My mom would do anything for me, and I’d do anything for my mom.”

Dr. Charles Bouchard, who performed the surgery, removed two small pieces of tissue from Jessica’s right eye, and then went into the other operating room where he harvested additional stem cells from an eye bank cornea donor and then went to work on Debra.

“We then removed the abnormal tissue from Debra’s cornea and, using biological glue, attached the stem cells from Jessica as well as those from the eye bank cornea,” Bouchard said, noting that the procedure is uncommon but several corneal surgeons in Chicago perform such stem cell transplants.

There was no guarantee the procedure would work, but Debra Astrug’s vision improved to 20/25 within several months, he said. Her vision before the procedure was 20/100 to 20/200.
Jessica healed quickly. She returned to work after a week and got her stitches out after two weeks.

“The biggest discomfort was the stitches in my eye,” Jessica said. “It was very uncomfortable. It felt like I had an eyelash or a grain of sand in my eye, but I couldn’t touch it because I risked pulling one of the sutures out.”

Bouchard said the biggest risk for Jessica is the chance of developing stem cell deficiency in the future, but that would be rare.

The stem cell transplant restores the normal outer layer of the cornea, which is the clear part of the eye. “If there is scarring or other causes of vision loss, like macular degeneration, or glaucoma or optic nerve disease, this procedure will not help blindness from these causes,” Bouchard said.

Watching her mother return to normalcy is “fantastic,” Jessica said.

“I drove her everywhere all the time, so now to see her in the car on her own, driving, driving at night, and she’s fine — it’s amazing.”

Debra Astrug agrees, even though no one knows how long the surgery results will last.

“I’ve had a lot of improvement in the past year. I can wear the [therapeutic] lens all day, and my vision is good,” she said. “It’s not always 100 percent; it goes in and out during the day and gets blurred sometimes. If I go into building where air is forced, my eyes dry out and can’t see as well. That will always be a problem, but I’ll deal with it. I have my general eyesight back, and that’s more than I ever hoped for.”

On Sunday, Astrug says, her daughter plans to take her to dinner to celebrate Mother’s Day.

“It brings a family closer when things like this happen,” Astrug said. “It doesn’t matter that it’s Mother’s Day. We love each other all the time.”

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