What do you say to someone when the death of their loved one gave you the amazing gift of sight? Deborah Strych struggled for months to find the right words to express her gratitude before meeting her cornea donor’s family last December. Yet in the end it was the tearful, silent embrace she shared with Gina Miller that said it all. “I’m so thankful, “Deborah told Gina at last. “It’s an unbelievable gift that you and Tony have given me.”
Gina Miller’s boyfriend, Tony Radulescu, was a Washington State trooper who was killed in the line of duty on February 23, 2012. “He was a one of a kind man and I loved him with all my heart,” Gina said. A Romanian immigrant who arrived in America in his teens, Tony was proud of his heritage and proud to also serve his new country in the armed forces as well as the Washington State patrol. His kindness, ready smile and wit made Tony a favorite among family, colleagues and friends. “Tony was the epitome of a state trooper,” Kitsap County Sheriff Steve Boyer said. “He could handle problems with courage and he had those interpersonal skills that made everybody like him. He could write somebody a ticket and they would say, ‘Thank you.’ ”
Tony was also a registered organ donor and five days after his death, Deborah received one of his corneas. Deborah is a nurse practitioner in California who was gradually going blind due to irregularly shaped corneas and complications from surgery. She had double vision, blurry vision and was seeing halos around lights. Driving at night and reading text were no longer possible for her. She was afraid of having to retire from nursing and abandon the low-income patients she served at Pittsburg Health Center.
Dr. Naveen Chandra, a corneal surgeon at Kaiser Permanente in Walnut Creek, California, performed Deborah’s corneal transplant and he was invited by SightLife to attend the meeting between his patient and Gina. Chandra has been performing about 30 corneal transplants per year for the past 12 years but had never had the opportunity to meet the family of a donor. It was a rare occasion, he said.
“Witnessing that heartfelt reunion really affected me. As surgeons, we tend to stay conveniently distant. This experience reminded me of the beauty of the work we do.”
Chandra had worked closely with Deborah throughout her recovery and was both intrigued and surprised by Deborah’s hesitation about meeting her donor family. Watching her struggle with feelings of guilt and even unworthiness as the date for the reunion approached, he realized he’d never really considered the emotional journey that transplant patients often go through as they come to terms with the loss of life that enabled them to see again. “That’s the other side of the equation,” he said. Gina brought mementos to the reunion to share with Deborah including a folded American flag that was presented to her at Tony’s funeral, Tony’s state trooper badge and stacks of handwritten notes and cards from strangers who wrote to express their deep condolences. The two women also worked together on Tony’s floragraph for the Donate Life Rose Parade float. They met a second time when they both traveled with SightLife to Pasadena to participate in the Parade.
It’s been a trying year to say the least,” Gina said. “I’m glad that even in Tony’s passing, that something good has come out of it, that he is still able to help people.” The fact that Deborah, a nurse, has spent her professional career helping others is not lost on Gina. “Things have come full circle,” she said. “Tony loved to help others and so does she. And now she can keep doing that.”