Trail to recovery: Rare eye disease provides lessons in perseverance, faith

January 2017 Posted in Community

By Kristine Thomas 

Elsie Guenther and her horse, Remy. Silver Dream Photography

Elsie Guenther and her horse, Remy. Silver Dream Photography

It would have been understandable if Elsie Guenther had lost her faith in God. Or if she had given up on maintaining her 4.0 GPA or competing on Silverton High School’s equestrian team. Given everything that happened to her during her senior year, it would be almost expected her grades would suffer and she couldn’t compete. Except as her mother, Christine, has said, “This is Elsie we are talking about.”

Elsie is not a quitter. Her faith, determination, a bit of stubbornness and sheer willpower allowed her to move forward, despite the loss of eyesight in her left eye.

If Elsie were to write this story, the first thing she would tell people is to never, ever rinse their contact lens in tap water. Even if someone says it is OK. The one thing she has quit doing since losing sight in one eye is wearing contact lens. Her parents, Scott and Christine, and brother, Evan, 16,  also have given up contacts.

Elsie, 18, is now a freshman at Chemeketa Community College. She just finished her first term with a 4.0. She is majoring in business management. Looking back on her senior year she admits it didn’t go as exactly as planned.

The first week of September 2015, Elsie felt intense pain in her left eye. Her vision was blurry, the eye swollen, watery and itchy. It took a few trips to eye doctors to learn she had Acanthamoebic Keratitis, in which amoeba eat away at the cornea. It only takes a week to cause loss of vision. The odds of getting this rare disease are about 1 in a million, Christine said.

Elsie, allergic to the preservatives in a contact solution,  switched to a different brand, but the contacts had to be rinsed with water before placing them in her eyes. Her doctor told her using tap water was OK. Unfortunately, that’s how she contracted the parasitic amoeba.

Acanthamoebic Keratitis is extremely painful. Elsie had to stop attending school for four months. A tutor visited her home. During the first few weeks, she couldn’t read for more than a few minutes, nor could she work at a computer due to glare.

The first steps toward recovery were killing the amoebas and managing the pain. There were rounds of medicated eye drops, even one sent from France. Christine said she gave Elsie 3,500 drops before she stopped counting.

There were frequent trips to Oregon Health Science University Casey Eye Institute for more medication and news that the treatments would last six to 12 months. There was dealing with the loss of vision in the affected eye, plus injections directly into the cornea to eradicate the amoebas. And there was the pain to manage.

Mostly, Elsie and Christine said, there were lots of prayers, their own and those of family and friends. Despite the difficult journey through stress, worries, and sleep deprivation, they never lost faith.

Getting to ride her horse, Remy, again; going to Oregon Coast; senior pictures; visits from friends; cards and flowers… all what was once considered normal parts of life, were now being celebrated with joy and excitement.

On Nov. 29, 2015, Christine wrote on her Facebook page, “Someone recently said to me, ‘you have the worst luck.’ I thought about that off and on that day and realized I don’t believe in luck; I just believe in God. Perhaps on the outside looking into our lives – especially right now – it may seem that way, but it isn’t. Even when we don’t understand, God’s plans are always good. Even when there is pain and sadness and disappointment, He is there. Sometimes it is easy to see how good His plans are and sometimes it is difficult to see in the midst of it all. And either way, come what may, God’s plans are still good. Always.”  

The Guenther family saw God’s love for them in Elsie being able to ride and compete in OHSET despite her vision ordeal. They saw it in the doctors they worked with and the friends who stood by their side. They celebrated Elsie’s healing, like when, after three months, she could partially open her left eye again. Even a mother and daughter disagreement on Feb. 3, 2016 led to joy. Christine was trying to persuade Elsie not to compete in new riding event, called Trail for OHSET. She wanted Elsie to compete in the familiar events that made for a successful junior year. 

“It doesn’t make sense to try a new event for her senior year even if she had sight in both of her eyes. And the event that she is very focused on is not even one that our horse is particularly good at. And to top it off, it is an event that requires an intense amount of depth perception. Trail!,” Christine explained, adding there were eight obstacles to navigate.

“With only a day before the meet, my sweet husband whispered in my ear, ‘let her do Trail – she’s had such a rough year. If her heart is set on it, let her go.’ And so I did.”

After watching in amazement as Elsie and Remy traversed the course, Christine remembers looking at the results, starting at the bottom of the list, slowly making her way up the 35 names to see her daughter’s at the top.  

“My eyes began to fill with tears, so I stepped back and watched Elsie’s teammates congratulate her on the win. And again I have to say, I don’t believe in luck, I just believe in God.”

Without vision in one eye Elsie lost depth perception, creating challenges. She said she learned to communicate with her horse in a new way. “I learned to see and navigate the world through one eye,” she said.

Elsie never made excuses, never quit, just found ways to do the things she loves. After the state fair, she wrote, “Pure bliss. Finished my last State Fair with medallions in Showmanship, Trail, and English and four FFA State Championships.” She spent the summer before college working at the barn.

On Sept. 19, 2016, Christine wrote about a year filled with heartbreaks dealing with the serious and rare condition and the days overflowing with “God’s unexpected blessings in the midst of the difficulties. Elsie’s bravery to overcome the loss of sight in her left eye and her determination to continue to excel despite this loss has never ceased to amaze me. She is more beautiful inside and out now than she was a year ago. God is infinitely good.”

On Dec. 8, Elsie had a cornea transplant at OHSU. Christine said Elsie is doing well. They will know in a few months if her body will fully accept the transplant.

What Elsie is hoping to hear at her doctor’s appointment in January is that she is cleared to ride again. She said this experience has taught her to be more confident and how to ask for help. For both mother and daughter it has been an opportunity to notice the little miracles in life.

“We have learned you have to have faith that some how everything is going to work out,” Christine said.

“God is always good — even when things are exceedingly difficult and even when we don’t understand. He is still good.”

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.