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Hoschton man fights to restore vision after fireworks accident
Porter seeking to raise funds for stem cell transplant
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Joel Porter is attempting to raise funds for a stem cell transplant for his right eye, which was severely injured in a fireworks accident on July 4.

Raising funds for Joel Porter’s stem cell transplant

Joel Porter is raising funds for a stem cell transplant, as well as to help with other medical bills incurred after a fireworks accident. To donate, visit gofundme.com/joelporter.

It was the Fourth of July, and Joel Porter and his friends decided to shoot off some of the new fireworks only recently allowed to be sold in Georgia.

The group went to a friend’s house in Athens, and after having a few drinks they decided to go out and shoot fireworks around midnight.

“Somebody misfired one,” Porter said. “It bounced off the pavement, and I was about 20 yards away, and all I remember was seeing a flash of green light and it hit me directly in the right eye.

“And the angle of it, too, because it bounced off the ground, it was coming up at a 45-degree angle and I saw it right before it hit me, so all I had time to do was blink. Unfortunately, I did it at the wrong time. It hit my eye and I blinked, and actually closed my eyelid on the firework. So basically, I put the firework out with my eye. It was an unbelievably ridiculous shot.”

After a few seconds of what the 24-year-old Hoschton man called “the most intense pain,” his vision went black and the area around the eye went numb. He sat on the ground, in shock, as his friends gathered around him.

Porter said his girlfriend kept asking to see the eye, which he had covered up with his hand. He didn’t want anyone to look at it at first, but eventually gave in as she kept asking.

She screamed and ran away, he said.

The aftermath

Porter was taken to Augusta Burn Center that night; though they briefly rinsed out the eye, Porter said, he really needed specialized eye care. The next day, he was taken to Emory Eye Center, where they entirely rinsed the dirt and chemicals from his eye.

Since then, it’s been a daily mission to find a way to not only restore his eyesight but to preserve the eye itself.

“I can see light, and that’s about it,” he said. “It’s almost like being underwater, but worse. It’s just very, very blurry.”

And it’s getting worse because scar tissue is now building up, he added.

The chances of Porter’s vision being entirely restored in his eye are slim at best. If his vision can’t be fully restored, he also wants to focus on preserving the eyeball; if not, he will need a prosthetic eye.

To have that vision restored is going to be a complicated procedure. He initially hoped to have a cornea transplant, but the incident destroyed all of the stem cells in his eye that help regenerate the protective layer around the cornea. Without those stem cells, a cornea transplant would be ineffective, as would an artificial cornea.

So first, he would have to be able to afford and then be accepted on a trial basis as a stem cell transplant recipient. The procedure has only been done a few times in the United States, so he would likely have to travel either to Canada or perhaps overseas, he said.

Porter will also need a skin graft to restore the burnt skin on his eyelid.

Though Porter has insurance through his parents, he is quickly hitting the limits as to what insurance will pay for these procedures. And, he added, it’s unlikely insurance would cover any of the stem cell transplant, as it’s a trial procedure.

A hope and a prayer

Porter is trying to raise $50,000 through the collection website GoFundMe; his page is gofundme.com/joelporter.

“I’m a college student ... and already have a little bit of college debt,” Porter said.

He attends the University of North Georgia’s Gainesville campus, studying computer science.

He does have a full-time job, working overnight hours as a data technician for an insurance company. But even that has been a challenge, as he has struggled to build strength in his remaining eye, and also fight off the anxiety about anything possibly happening to compromise his vision even further.

Meanwhile, he also has medical bills coming from Emory, where he goes weekly for treatments to preserve the eyeball. There are also bills from Augusta Burn Center, as well as for Northeast Georgia Medical Center, where he said he had to go for a blood clot following his initial hospital visit.

“We set (the GoFundMe) at $50,000 because of the stem cell transplant,” he said. “Because it’s a trial, we don’t think insurance is going to cover that, and we’re going to have to go out of state or out of country to get that done.”

It’s an uphill battle in front of Porter who, nearly two months later, still sounds completely shocked by the incident.

He said he has no plans to ever shoot off fireworks again, and if he has children one day, he won’t allow them to do so either. He would much rather go to a professional show, he said.

“I would definitely tell people that they need to be much more careful, because you never think something like this would happen to you ... that one moment can flip the entire world upside down. I look back and I really regret even going outside to shoot the fireworks,” he said, wistfulness and regret mingling in his voice. “I would not be $50,000 in debt and I would have my eye. I know you can’t think back negatively on that, but it is my biggest regret.

“You’re handling explosives and most of the time you’re drinking and you’re just kind of being wild and I just think ... it’s just not worth it.”

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