By Elise Franco
Allison Horvat said she was never afraid during a procedure that would stop a degenerative eye disease and give her full sight back in one eye.
The 28-year-old Austintown woman was diagnosed several years ago with Keratoconus, which is a disease that causes the degeneration of the cornea’s structure. Keratoconus affects one out of every 200 people.
In July, she and her parents, Steve and Lynn Horvat, flew to Beverly Hills, Calif., for a surgery that stopped the disease from progressing in her left eye and gave her perfect vision in her right.
“Before [the surgery] my eyes were always tired,” Allison said. “Now, it’s fine.”
Allison also has Down syndrome, a condition in which extra genetic material causes delays in the way a child develops, both physically and mentally but was told it and the Keratoconus were unrelated.
Lynn Horvat said local doctors always told them the disease was stable but she would eventually go blind and could need cornea transplants.
“She was legally blind in one eye, and her vision was blurry in the other,” Lynn said. “She was never sure of anything because she couldn’t see. She could never focus her eyes.”
Lynn said everything changed in March when she saw a story on the news about 20-year-old Ian Barnes, of Champion, who also suffered from Keratoconus. His sight was restored through a procedure called Holcomb C3-R, which was invented and performed by Dr. Brian S. Boxer Wachler.
“I contacted Dr. Boxer Wachler by letter, and right away they called me and asked to meet Allison,” Lynn said.
Allison remained awake throughout the entire operation, during which Dr. Boxer Wachler placed the Holcomb C3-R, which he invented in 2003, onto her cornea and activated it by a light that strengthens the cornea’s weak structure.
He also performed two other operations on Allison to aid her in regaining sight.
Lynn said she was more afraid than her daughter going into the operation.
“I was in the room the whole time, and I was crying when I saw the procedure,” she said.
Allison, however, said she wasn’t scared at all. “I was excited for it. I knew it would make me see.”
Dr. Boxer Wachler said he was humbled to know he had the opportunity to help Allison.
“I know myself and my staff are doing what we’re on the planet to do, which is help people see again and get back to their normal lives again,” the doctor said, adding the surgery has a 99 percent long-term success rate.
Steve Horvat said the family’s biggest obstacle after learning Allison was a candidate for the procedure was how they would pay.
The operation cost nearly $12,000, but they also paid for three round-trip flights to California, a hotel stay near the clinic in Beverly Hills and prescription eye drops and medications for Allison.
“The [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] doesn’t recognize the surgery, so our insurance wouldn’t pay for it,” he said.
Steve said they began fundraising with the help of family and friends. Every Tuesday from May through June the Ice House Inn in Austintown hosted a “Bike Nite” benefit for Allison; a spaghetti dinner benefit was organized at The Purple Cat in Youngstown, where Allison attends and works; and a donation account was set up through Farmers National Bank.
The hard work of the Horvat family and all involved in the fundraising, paired with generosity of the Mahoning Valley, helped raised nearly $19,000.
Lynn said the money will be enough to cover all the medical and travel expenses, as well as follow-up doctors’ visits and medications for Allison.
“We couldn’t be more thankful for everyone who pretty much banded together to help,” Steve said. “We never, in a million years, thought people would come together for us like this.”
Lynn and Steve said their daughter has become more like herself again since the operation.
“Her life started to shut down,” Lynn said. “But now she’s taking it upon herself to do things, and she’s more confident when she’s doing them.”