Stranger's gift gives young man another shot at dream of serving others

By Sarah Mayberry, M.P.H., Local 4 Health Producer, @4goodhealth
Published On: Oct 29 2013 10:54:29 PM EDT
Updated On: Oct 29 2013 11:00:00 PM EDT
garrett bowman
TWIN LAKE, Mich. -

He's just 20-years-old, but Garrett Bowman, from Muskegon, Mich., knows his way around a gun range. He's also an experienced hunter.

Bowman planned to use his shooting skills to serve his country as a Marine.

"I started talking to the recruiter when I was a senior in high school," said Bowman.  "I actually enlisted while I was still in high school."

But just two weeks before he was scheduled to ship out for boot camp, disaster struck.

"My eye had been bothering me, but I didn't think it was a big deal," said Bowman. "I was camping and I woke up in the tent and I couldn't open my eye. And it hurt just God-awful bad."

Bowman went to a medical center for help.

"The man actually told me it was just a scratch, and he gave me some antibiotic drops and sent me on my way," said Bowman.

But Bowman's eye quickly got worse -- much worse. He learned later that he was suffering from an aggressive bacterial infection that was destroying his cornea.

"Somehow a bacteria got underneath my contact lens that I was wearing at the time and I didn't catch it," said Bowman. "It actually ate halfway through my cornea and scarred it pretty bad. This was all in the matter of three days."

The cornea is the clear, dome-shaped window covering the front of the eye. Without it, the eye can't focus properly.

"Normal" vision is considered 20/20, legally blind is 20/200. After the infection, Bowman's vision in his right eye was 20/400.

"You take it for granted your whole life to be able to see, and then you can't. That's pretty rough," said Bowman.

Instead of shipping out for boot camp, Bowman was left struggling with his new reality.

"I couldn't see past not being able to go into the Marine Corps," Bowman said. "I didn't really have a plan."

Losing his depth perception made even everyday tasks difficult.

"Little things like reaching for stuff, I would knock things over, and if somebody threw something at me, I wouldn't catch it," Bowman said. "It would bounce off my hand or hit me in the face or whatever. I tried to laugh at it, but I mean, realistically, it was hard."

But Bowman was determined to learn to shoot again.

"I had to learn how to use my left eye for everything, because I was right-eye dominate for my guns and my bow," Bowman said.

Bowman went bow-hunting just weeks after suffering the infection.

"It was a challenge.  I didn't actually shoot a deer with my bow, but I did take him with my rifle that November," said Bowman.

Doctors offered him hope in the form of a cornea transplant.

"I just thought there is good. There is light at the end of the tunnel," said Bowman.

Earlier this year, a donated cornea was transplanted into his damaged right eye. A stranger gave Bowman the gift of sight.

"I could already see 20/100 the next day," said Bowman. "So it was a big improvement."

With his new glasses, his vision is about 20/25, and it's still improving.

Bowman has set his sights on a new goal. He's in college studying criminal justice. Bowman and his doctor are optimistic that his vision will eventually reach the 20/20 standard he needs to meet the police requirements.

"If being a patrol cop or a state cop is out of the question, I might go for a four-year degree and try to get in the military."

He doesn't know who his donor was, but he wrote their family a letter.

"If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be able to see right now," Bowman said. "I just wanted them to know that I am really thankful for what their family member did and how he could help me. And I really just want to pay it forward to the community, to the country."

According to the Michigan Eye-Bank, more than 1,000 people across Michigan will receive a cornea transplant this year. You can sign up to be a cornea donor by joining the Michigan Organ Donor Registry.

Click here to join the Michigan Organ Donor Registry.

Click here to learn more about the Michigan Eye-Bank.

Michigan Stadium will host an event on November 17 to help people register as organ donors. Join the Be The Match bone marrow registry and donate blood.

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