Penn Hills man's eyes help doctors, others see the light
A Penn Hills man’s desire for all to see the light lives on through his eyes.
John “Jack” Wisnoski, a three-time cornea transplant recipient who died earlier this year, donated his organs to UPMC to help further research.
“I hope they can advance what he has been through and help the people that have had this problem in the past,” said his widow, Elinor Wisnoski.
Wisnoski was diagnosed with keratoconus, a degenerative disorder of the eye, at a young age. Few options were available for him in the 1930s, and it took 15 years before his eyes were treated.
He received his first cornea transplant — a square one to his right eye — in New York City in 1945. His left eye would be treated in 1946 and again in May 1953.
Cornea refers to the clear, front surface of the eye. With a corneal transplant, also called keratoplasty, the central part of the cornea is surgically removed and replaced with a “button” of clear and healthy tissue from a donor.
Kira Lathrop, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine and UPMC’s Department of Opthalmology, received Wisnoski’s eyes Nov. 6, coincidentally during national Eye Donation Month .
She said a cornea is viable for transplant within two to three weeks after death, but his will be used for research .
Lathrop said keratoplasty is one of the most common transplants in the world. However, square transplants, particularly the one-time successful one Wisnoski had, are rare.
“Because that tissue is so unique with both the configuration of the graft and the age and survival of the graft, what we want to do is look at the collagen structure and how it healed across the wound,” she said. “A graft that has survived that long is what you wish for every graft.”
His eyes were not the first research gift Wisnoski gave Lathrop.
She said Wisnoski helped facilitate a $20,000 research grant to investigate the generation of stem cells for corneal epithelium, the outermost layer of the cornea.
“It’s directly related to trying to support corneal transplantations and make sure that the graft stays healthy,” Lathrop said. “At this point, the specific project has produced two patents, and I’m in the clinical and translation science Ph.D. program now because of it. He was a remarkable person in life and after.”
Funds came through the Eye and Ear Foundation of Pittsburgh.
Wisnoski hailed from Verona and Elinor from the Rosedale section of Penn Hills. They built a house together in Penn Hills in 1962.
He would go on to work as an automobile mechanic for Cochran Pontiac for 20 years and then a financial planner for Legg Mason in Pittsburgh.
He became a board member of the Medical Eye Bank of Pittsburgh in the 1990s, facilitated contributions to the Eye and Ear Foundation of Pittsburgh and supported corneal stem cell research work by Dr. Jim Funderburgh.
He suffered from Alzheimer’s and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in the late stages of his life.
“To see this brilliant mind just leaving me, staring into space, it was very hard,” Elinor Wisnoski said. “I prayed a lot. I feel very good that we did as much as we could for him.”
The couple were a few days away from celebrating their 59th wedding anniversary when he died in his home on Nov. 4, at age 88.
“Jack was a very kind and talented man in many respects,” said Elinor Wisnoski. “He could do most anything around the house. He directed the folk group choir at our church, and he just enjoyed people.”
More information about the cornea and related UPMC services is available at upmc.com/services/eye/services/cornea .
Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-871-2367, email@example.com or via Twitter @MikeJdiVittorio.