Aug. 3, 2018 | For the past few months, Mack and Karen Farris have spent lots of quality time taking in sights. The Fort Smith couple has enjoyed sunsets on the beach, trips back to their hometown in Alabama, visiting friends and family in Mississippi and Georgia and boating with dolphins in Florida.
It is a refreshing outlet for the Farrises because they spent 18 months in a dark bedroom. Mack Farris’ vision had been severely damaged in a workplace accident in 2016. After multi-disciplinary care at the UAMS Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute, Farris can now see well enough to work, drive, read and travel.
“In the last visit we had with Dr. [Christopher] Westfall he said, ‘I want you all to take a trip. And I want you to see things.’ So we went home. And that’s what we did. We saw things,” Karen Farris said.
On Aug. 12, 2016, there was a clogged drain in the warehouse at Mack Farris’ workplace. It was not an unusual event. It happened from time to time. And like he normally would, Farris used a drain cleaner product to clear the pipes. But on this particular Friday morning, the drain was more clogged than usual.
“I had my pressure washer,” Farris said. “And when I hit the drain with the pressure washer, the backflush splashed and came up under my safety glasses. It was a bad day.”
Farris says the fluid went through his nose and in his eyes, blinding him. The next thing he remembers is being in a trauma center in Fort Smith. They were just about to fly him via helicopter to Little Rock. But doctors warned the pressure change would not be good for his eyes.
“I’ve traveled from Fort Smith to Little Rock lots of times but that was the longest trip I’ve ever made.”
Mack Farris says he knew he was being well taken care of. He just couldn’t see anything.
“In the beginning, I knew that our world had changed forever,” Karen Farris said. “They told me that the likelihood of Mack seeing again was very small.”
The alkali burn caused Farris to lose vision completely in his left eye. The vision in his right eye was too fuzzy for him to function as a sighted person.
“One of the wonderful things about UAMS is that we have a team approach to all injuries and medical problems,” said Christopher Westfall, M.D., professor and chair of the Department of Ophthalmology in the UAMS College of Medicine and director of the Jones Eye Institute. “We have specialists and sub-specialists all in one building for eye injuries. We see chemical injuries, but injuries as severe as Mr. Farris’ are relatively infrequent. But when it does happen, it’s important that we have a team of experts who can provide comprehensive care.”
In April 2017, Farris received a cornea transplant for his right eye.
Later, John Pemberton, D.O., associate professor of the Department of Ophthalmology in the UAMS College of Medicine, surgically repositioned Farris’ eyelids and the surface tissue to prevent further damage that could lead to infection and loss of the eyes. Pemberton says an alkali burn is generally more severe than an acid burn because it tends to burn longer.
“In some cases the eyelids continue to scar from six months to a year after the incident,” Pemberton said. “In order to prevent this, you have to reposition the lids so that it doesn’t cause more ocular injury.”
For his left eye, which shrunk and lost vision, Pemberton placed a thin prosthetic shell over the white of his eye, or the sclera. The scleral shell gave Farris’ face a more symmetrical balance.
While Farris was healing, the light bothered him. His family had covered his bedroom windows with garbage bags to block the sun. Karen Farris says their son Daniel, who was living in Fort Smith at the time, helped them a lot. They took advantage of grocery store pickups and meal kit services.
“We followed every item to the letter that Drs. Goyle, Pemberton Westfall and Brown put before us,” Karen Farris said. “If they said to rest, he rested. We really stayed in our bedroom for over a year, in the dark.”
While in their house, Farris says she and her husband would imagine places they would go when he healed and regained his sight.
“We’d dream of taking down the garbage bags and putting in French doors. We’d talk about taking trips,” Karen Farris said.
Before the accident, Mack Farris enjoyed outdoor activities and keeping up with his four grandchildren. Caden is 12, Cash and Kenadie are 11 and Isla is 2. His wife says he wasn’t as active when he couldn’t see. Daily phone conversations with his sister, Cindy Hall, in Alabama and babysitting Isla were some of the many things that kept his spirits up. Karen Farris said they laughed often and reminisced about good times over the 29-year marriage and raising three sons. Hall and her husband, Larry, even traveled from Eldridge, Alabama, to Little Rock and Fort Smith for every procedure and surgery. Sometimes, they’d come by just to lift their spirits.
“They were a huge support to us,” Karen Farris said.
Katie Brown, O.D., an optometric physician in the Jones Eye Institute, saw Farris for the first time in March 2018. She was set to fit him for a scleral contact lens in his right eye. Unlike most contact lenses, scleral contact lenses are firm and are able to hold a small reservoir of liquid. It covers the cornea and much of the sclera.
“These contacts help give the patient a new cornea,” Brown said. “He had a cornea transplant. And it was perfect. But sometimes the surface is still irregular and there are patients who need additional help to function and see.”
On the day of Farris’ appointment to get his scleral lens, he could hardly make out the big ‘E’ on the eye chart.
“I put the lens in and it happened to be close to the power he needed,” Brown said. “He instantly could see almost 20/20.”
Everyone in the exam room was emotional. It had been 586 days since Farris lost his vision. Karen Farris documented much of their journey and clinic visits with photos and video. She compiled a video montage that included images from his first day in the hospital until the day he received his contact. The video shows ophthalmic tech Leora Bibbs crying and embracing Farris. Karen Farris says off camera, “We love you too, Leora. We couldn’t have gone through this without you.” The montage includes photos of Mack Farris smiling and posing with Westfall, Brown and Pemberton.
“I lost it,” Brown said. “It was one of those special moments when you remember why you do what you do. This is why I’m here. To help people just like Mr. Farris.”
Karen and Mack Farris have taken down the garbage sacks in this bedroom. They now have French doors. Farris has returned to work, something many of his coworkers never expected to happen. He’s been reissued a driver’s license.
“He’s doing things again,” Karen Farris said. “He’s doing yardwork, planted a garden, watching baseball games, driving me crazy. He’s being the normal Mack and it’s great.”