After surviving a horrible illness that burned her body from the inside out and left her blind, an Alberta woman may soon have her sight restored thanks to her sister.
Leanne Mackenzie Worbeck of Spruce Grove and her sister Erin Watchel will travel to Toronto in September. University Health Network surgeons will take tissue from Watchel’s eyes, and from a deceased donor, and transplant the stem cells into Worbeck’s eyes.
Worbeck lost her vision in July of 2014 when she got what she thought was pink eye. Then her face swelled and a rash appeared on her chest.
“The last thing I remember was getting onto a stretcher, being driven to the University of Alberta, and a nurse coming out (who) said: ‘Take her straight to quarantine,'” recalled Worbeck.
It turned out to be Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, a rare disorder of the skin and mucous membranes. Her entire body was covered in second- and third-degree burns.
“My mom came in and she was told to call in the family because they didn’t think I was going to make it to 24 hours,” Worbeck said.
“(Worbeck was) burning from the inside out,” said respirologist Erika MacIntyre.
“She ended up with a very severe form (of the disorder).”
The mother of two almost died four times. She needed a ventilator to breathe and 300 blood transfusions. When she came out of her medically-induced coma six weeks later, she couldn’t move or speak.
“I wondered what happened. I thought there was a fire,” said Worbeck. “I was wondering where my kids were.”
After seven months in the hospital, she was strong enough to come home to her kids, Evan (five) and Olivia (eight), and her husband Matt. But she couldn’t see them.
“It’s like I’m in a sauna. I see shadows unless people are really close to me.”
The surgeries, conjunctival and limbal stem cell transplants, could restore Worbeck’s sight enough for her to be able to drive again. The 37-year-old hopes to be able to watch her children play and volunteer at their school.
Alberta Health will cover the procedure and a portion of Worbeck’s travel expenses, but the trips back and forth to Toronto for follow-ups will still cost her about $60,000 per eye.
A GoFundMe has been set up for the family here.
Dr. MacIntyre feels the cost is prohibitive and health care coverage needs to evolve with modern medicine.
“We’ve gotten very good at keeping people alive but the question is: what next?”