Expressions of Gratitude: Herjok Deng

by South Dakota Lions Foundation | Aug 20, 2014
Take a moment and think about what you were doing when you were seven years old. Odds are visions of second grade, memorizing spelling words, solving math problems, playing with your friends at recess and riding your bike came to mind. Now consider being seven years old and separated from your family, fleeing soldiers and walking hundreds of miles to try to find safety.

Herjok Deng is from Sudan, Africa (now called South Sudan) – he was just seven years old when he was separated from his family. He was among thousands of children who fled to Ethiopia to find safety. By 1992, when Herjok was 12 he moved on to Kenya as a refugee.

The first time he noticed his vision changing was around 1995, he had to try to open his eyes wider to see. This was while he was in Kenya and there was no clinic or facility that could help. “The doctor’s there didn’t even know what they were doing, they told me there was nothing wrong with my eyes,” explained Herjok, “but, I knew there was something wrong, because I could not see.”

In 2001, Herjok was among a small group of refugees that were able to leave Kenya and given safe haven in United States. Herjok found his new home in Sioux Falls.

Once he arrived in Sioux Falls, he was given a physical exam and the doctor determined Herjok had poor vision. A follow up with Vance Thompson confirmed that Herjok had vision problems that affected his corneas and laser surgery was performed to correct his vision.

He went on to attended Lincoln High School – where he earned his high school diploma. Then thirsty for more knowledge, Herjok went on to attend Colorado Technical University. While he was there he earned a degree in computer science and a diploma in NDT (Non-Destructive Testing; which is working with oil/gas companies, drilling, oil pipelines, and aircraft/inspectors). Once he finished his undergrad work Herjok moved to Minnesota, where he found a job and began researching law schools.

Herjok decided on the University of St Thomas in St Paul, applied, was accepted and began his first year in September 2012. When Herjok returned for his second year in the fall of 2013, he noticed some problems with his eye sight. His vision was getting bad and he had trouble seeing what the professors were presenting in class.

His professor noticed he was coming closer and closer to the front of the class to see and felt there was a problem. The professor took his concerns to the school administration. After reviewing Herjok’ credits, performance and grades – the administration determined that he needed to withdraw from classes and find a way to correct his vision before he could return to school.

Herjok went to a clinic in St Paul and they discovered that his corneas were blurry and scared. The scars were very deep and they told him there was nothing they could do. They explained that he had bad corneas in both eyes and would need to find a cornea specialist.

He had considered trying to take care of his vision treatment in Minnesota, but he had no one there he could lean on. So, Herjok came back to Sioux Falls to be close to his many friends and cousins, here he would have the support system he needed while he waited for treatment.

Herjok made an appointment at Vance Thompson Vision, one of the cornea specialists in the area. He met with Dr. John Berdahl. A complete exam verified what the doctors in Minnesota had told him, the scarring in his corneas was very deep and he learned he would need a cornea transplant in each eye.

Since he didn’t have insurance, Herjok felt “stuck” he had no idea how he would ever pay for the treatment. It was Dr. Berdahl’s staff at Vance Thompson Vision that referred Herjok to the South Dakota Lions Foundation to apply for assistance.

A friend brought him to the SDLF office, where he completed the application. “They might help you.” Eleanor explained. It wasn’t long after that when he received a letter that explained that the Lions would help with the cost of the surgery, for one eye. Herjok shared how, “very, very excited,” he was, when he got the news!

“We are fortunate to be able to work with Dr. John Berdahl. He’s made surgery possible for many South Dakotans through the years. We appreciate the generosity of Vance Thompson Vision,” shared MJ. “We could not meet the need without their help!”

Herjok requested his previous medical records from before the cornea transplant, and he discovered that the laser surgery he received in 2001 was done to try to prevent the need for a cornea transplant. “At the time of that surgery I didn’t really realize what it was all for,” he shared.

Even with how bad his sight was Herjok was working at TJ Maxx as a stocker in the months before surgery. It was difficult – he explained, “When I tried to see the tags of the merchandise I had to go to a really bright light in order to try to see the numbers.” He could never advance to a higher position within a company - his eye sight always held him back. Intellectually, he could, but his eye sight always kept him at entry level.

Dr. Berdahl’s team worked with the South Dakota Lions Eye and Tissue Bank to find a cornea match for Herjok. Once the match was found, the surgery was scheduled for December 17, 2013. The procedure took about an hour, but to Herjok it seemed like only minutes. He explained, “It didn’t really hurt, nothing was painful during surgery. The nurses were very nice, very kind and kept me warm.  And, the equipment that they use is amazing!”

The change in his sight was immediate – Herjok’s vision went from 2200 to 20/125 in just one day! “I’m very grateful,” he exclaimed. “It’s such a big change!” His vision is expected to continue to improve each day – the doctors told him it should eventually be up to 80% better than the 20/125.

Since the surgery there have been no problems and he has had very little pain. The doctors do worry about rejection, so Herjok will need to use eye drops for a year to prevent rejection of his new cornea.

When asked if there is anything that stands out to him since his surgery Herjok shared, “I play the drums at church and now I can see the numbers that are arranged on the board for the music!” Since the surgery he said he is able to see better and clearer than ever before.

Doctors believe it is possible that the scarring of Herjok’s corneas was because he had measles as a child. There are no measles vaccines available in Sudan. There are also other possibilities, such as the insects and parasites that fly around their eyes. Plus Herjok explained, “Walking from town to town, country to country during the night – sometimes the bushes, or what is flying around, you don’t know what can get in your eyes.”

Once help is available to replace the right cornea, Dr Berdahl said it would take just 30 days and he could have the surgery.

Herjok said that his experiences with the Lions and Vance Thompson have been “One of the best things I have gone through in my life. I asked myself, if I don’t do this, then what is the outcome going to be? – Then God helped me out.”

After he is able to have the other cornea replaced, Herjok plans to return to law school. Plus, he can’t wait to “pay it forward” for all the help and kindness he has received along the way.