BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — When Cameron Stovall took a shotgun blast to the face during a 2014 hunting trip, the pellets that pierced his eyes caused them to fill with blood and he was almost certain that he'd never see again.
"I had had a great job, just graduated college and was making some really good money and had plans for life — and then it all took a turn," Stovall, 27, said. "It left me immediately blind."
On Thursday, Stovall, of Gadsden, underwent what is expected to be his final surgery at the University of Alabama at Birmingham's Callahan Eye Hospital to partially restore vision in his left eye. Stovall's right eye was unsalvageable. Doctors replaced it with an artificial one and he's had 18 surgeries since the accident, said Dr. Robert Morris, president of the Birmingham-based Helen Keller Foundation, which works to prevent blindness and deafness.
"It's been a long road," Stovall's mother, Mary, tearfully told Morris after surgeons removed silicone that had been inserted in her son's remaining eye. "I can't describe how ready we are to get it behind us," she said.
After the accident, Stovall struggled with standard light perception tests that are typically used to determine whether eyes can be saved after traumatic injuries, Morris said. He added that too often doctors stop at light perception tests to determine whether an injured eye might see again after a traumatic injury.
When doctors removed Stovall's cornea — the eye's clear outer layer — and performed a vitrectomy to drain the fluid from inside, they saw the pellet narrowly missed the optic nerve in his remaining eye. Surgeons implanted an artificial cornea and used silicone oil as a temporary stabilizer.
"We put that in the eye to be a kind of splint for the retina, to keep the retina in position and to reduce the likelihood of scar tissue from forming in his eye," Morris said. Removing the silicone is expected to help improve focus in Stovall's remaining eye once it fills with natural fluid again, said Morris.
After the accident and even after surgeons started working to restore vision in his left eye, Stovall grappled with the possibility of total blindness.
"I didn't get any vision back until after the sixth surgery. I lost hope definitely in what God could do and what Dr. Morris could do. I got to a point where I thought, 'I need to figure out how to live life blind,'" he said.
"The stuff I took for granted — small things like going to the bathroom, being able to enjoy the outdoors without having somebody to lead me around. I took for granted going to work every day, just hopping out of bed and not tripping over things."
Morris said he hopes more doctors look beyond standard light perception tests to determine whether an eye can be salvaged after traumatic injuries.
"If the patient says they see no light at all and that continues day after day for several weeks, then it's thought to be synonymous with permanent loss of vision," Morris said, adding that Stovall is a prime example of why it's important not to give up too soon.
"I think that progress is being made and more and more surgeons are being aggressive in the treatment of these injures," said Morris, who also restored vision to an Israeli boy after a bombing that killed five of his relatives, and to a woman who survived a bombing of a U.S. Embassy in Kenya in 1998. "But there's still work to be done and surgeons who need to be convinced that these eyes can be saved."
Stovall compared his restored vision before the silicone was removed to looking through a glass of cooking oil.
"Through trial and error I've figured out how to do everything but drive," he said, adding that life since the accident has been one appointment and surgery after another. He is hoping to work again soon.
"It's been just absolutely overwhelming the little bit of vision I have," Stovall said, "and how grateful I am for it."
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