Tragedy Gives Musician Gift of Sight

Music has always been Andre Jones heart and soul, even when he started losing his sight as a teen.

"I can't think of anything else that I have to have every single day," Jones said of his passion for music.

His talent as a singer and musician flourished, while his sight slowly deteriorated. Jones has keratoconus, a common eye disease in which the cornea begins to bulge, causing distorted vision.

Jones' vision loss began to affect his ability to play instruments.

" I had to lean like all the way over like when my nose was touching the keyboard," he said.

By the age of 28, Jones could see only as far as his own hand. Legally blind, he could no longer read or drive.

Dr. Vincent Verdi, an ophthalmologist from Norfolk, Va., told him his disease was one of the worst cases he'd ever seen of keratoconus. There was a glimmer of hope -- a cornea transplant could allow Jones to see again.

Tragedy's Silver Lining

One Saturday night in May, 17-year-old best friends Tessa Tranchant and Alison Kunhardt were stopped at a traffic light and were hit by an alleged drunken driver, who was an illegal immigrant.

The Virginia Beach girls were killed instantly. The tragedy made national news and fueled a fiery debate over immigration laws.

It also left the girls' parents mourning the loss of their daughters.

"When there was a sleepover they were like sisters," said Alison's dad, Dave Kunhardt. "They literally were almost hugging each other every time they went to bed."

On the other side of town, Jones got a call that he described as a bittersweet miracle. His ophthalmologist told Jones a cornea was available to him. The donor was Alison Kunhardt.

"When I learned that I was the recipient of a cornea, you know, of a young person that lost a life, I was hurt," Jones said. "It was the cornea of somebody who was snatched off the face of the earth. My first concern was the family."

Heartened by the generous donation and the chance to see again, Jones underwent a 45-minute transplant in his left eye. The next day, he had an unforgettable moment in his doctor's office.

"He put a chart in front of me and said, 'OK, what do you see?'" Jones said. "It wasn't perfect, and I did take my time."

Jones told the doctor he saw the letter 'E.' "I called it, and I was right!" he said.

Since then, Jones' sight has improved dramatically.

"In one month, we got him to 20/50, which by the criteria he's legal to drive again," Verdi said. "So he went from, 'What am I wearing?' to 'I want my driver's license back.'"

'Reborn' After Transplant

Jones also wanted to thank Alison's family.

"I have a portion of Alison. And Alison, Dave and family and friends were separated, and I felt like it was my responsibility to get her back to him the best way I could," Jones said.

While reluctant to meet Jones so soon after Alison's death, Dave Kunhardt agreed.

When they met, Jones discovered that he and Alison shared something in common -- a love of music.

"I understand that she did take piano. I understand that she was an outgoing person. She had a big heart, and there were no strangers," Jones said. "I think it was definitely a greater match than just a piece of tissue."

The meeting was gratifying for Kunhardt, too.

"Just the joy on his face," Kunhardt said of Jones. "He must have said thank-you 30 times in 20 minutes."

With his precious gift of sight, Jones can once again play the piano with ease, and his life has never looked brighter.

"It's nothing I can describe," Jones said. "I feel like I've been reborn in a sense. Not too many people get that opportunity, and I got that opportunity. I literally got the chance to start life over."

You can learn more about Lifenet by visiting their Web site, www.lifenet.org.

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