At 17 years old, I have a prosthetic eye.

I have been blind in my right eye since birth, and the eye problems continued from there. But now I am pain-free. My journey is just beginning.

When I was three days old and ready to leave the hospital, the doctor could not get a red reflex in my right eye. At five days old, my mom took me to an eye doctor, who sent us to Omaha, Nebraska the next day. The day after that, a scan was done on my eye in Sioux City, Iowa, which showed a cataract.

At 13 days, I had my first surgery – a cataract surgery. Following the surgery, I was diagnosed with glaucoma. At four weeks, I received my first pair of glasses, paid for by the Lions Club in Yankton.

At two months, I had a trabeculectomy to control my eye pressure. Over the next six months, I had three valves implanted in my eye: one Krupin and two Ahmed.

Years passed without eye issues until 2011, when I was 12 years old. One of the valves in my eye became encapsulated by a cyst. I had another procedure done to remove the cyst along with part of the valve. However, following surgery, the remaining part of the device was making contact with my cornea, causing corneal bullae to form. When these blister-like bullae burst, it exposed the nerve endings in my eye, causing intense pain. This formed corneal keratitis and degraded my cornea. In May 2012, I had a cornea transplant, but the cornea that I received had herpes simplex virus, causing more pain.

In October 2015, one of the tubes infiltrated my eye. I had an emergency operation to remove the tube and implant a new one. This healed up perfectly, but the condition of my cornea continued to worsen. I was in such intense pain that I couldn’t attend school. When I went to bed at night, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do anything the next day or how much pain I would wake up with. I was in constant pain and all I could do was sleep. I couldn’t do my homework because I couldn’t be in the light and because the overwhelming pain prevented me from focusing. I missed more school because I had emergency eye doctor appointments in Omaha multiple times a month.

My mom and I decided we needed another option. My cornea specialist referred me to an ophthalmologist, Dr. James W. Gigantelli, MD.

Finally, I got the one thing that was on my Christmas list for years: an enucleation, or the removal of my blind eye. On September 28th, 2016, I had my right eye removed.

Following the two-hour operation, I was recliner-ridden for more than a week. I was not allowed to bend over, lie in a horizontal position, get my face wet, or lift anything at all. It hurt to look around because the muscles were still sore. The bandage covered a third of my face and was not replaced until the post-op appointment on Oct. 3. Over time, the pain lessened and I no longer needed pain medication. I returned to school gradually, starting with half-days and working my way up to full days. Once I could regularly replace the bandage, I ordered a black-and-silver bejeweled eye patch online to wear until I got my prosthetic one in six to eight weeks.

On Dec. 2, my family and I traveled down to Torrison Eye Care in Omaha, where the ocularist, David Greer, fitted me for my custom-made eye. It was an all-day process. In the morning, he made an impression of my eye socket and did the first fitting. Then my family and I left to have lunch while he made the mold. We returned in the afternoon for the painting process. He painted my artificial eye to match my left eye. We left to go Christmas shopping and returned for the final fitting. I returned home that night with a new eye.

It was incredible looking in the mirror and seeing two identical eyes for the first time. I am pain-free for the first time in years and I feel normal again. I am free to do what I want and go where I want. My eye no longer restricts me from pursuing my dreams. I can attend college and not have to worry about missing class due to pain or doctor appointments.

Erin Olson is a senior at Yankton High School and works as a news intern at the Press & Dakotan.