Threat of blindness couldn't stop Creighton's McKinney

Updated: November 24, 2004, 3:28 PM ET
Associated Press

OMAHA, Neb. -- Tyler McKinney wondered 10 months ago if he would ever see out of his right eye again, let alone play basketball.

The Creighton senior was in excruciating pain from an infection that had invaded his eye and would require two cornea transplants.

Basketball should have been the furthest thing from his mind. But the possibility of returning to the court motivated him during his recovery. And now, sooner than anyone but perhaps McKinney thought, he is back with the Bluejays and starting at point guard.

Jim McKinney, Tyler's father and a prison warden in Rockwell City, Iowa, remembers the day last spring when doctors tried to give Tyler a pep talk about all the successful people who have use of only one eye. This month, Jim McKinney got to listen to his son being introduced before the Bluejays' first game.

"I have to admit I got a little choked up," he said. "It was nice to see him run out on the court again because we didn't think that was going to happen."

Tyler wasn't so sure, either.

"Right now the eye feels normal," he said. "But then I think back to March and April, when I didn't know if I would see again."

McKinney leads the Bluejays in minutes through three games, and his assist-to-turnover ratio is 4 to 1. He's averaging 4.3 points.

McKinney thinks his problems started last year during the team's preseason tour of western Canada. He mistakenly used tap water to wash the case in which he stores his contact lenses. Doctors believe it was through the water that he contracted the organism, acanthamoeba, that began eating away at his cornea.

McKinney's right eye became bloodshot and sensitive to light, and by mid-January he couldn't see out of it. His left eye was fine.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst, McKinney said the pain in his right eye was 9½. Still, he managed to play in ten of the first 12 games. He missed the final 17 games, with Creighton going 8-9 after a 12-0 start.

Meanwhile, McKinney lay in a darkened hospital room in Iowa City for a week in January, receiving eyedrops every 20 minutes, day and night. He showed no improvement and underwent his first cornea transplant March 4. But not all of the amoeba was out of the eye, and a second transplant was done April 1.

"It's remarkable he can play this year," said Dr. John Sutphin, a University of Iowa Hospitals surgeon who performed the transplants. "Ordinarily, we have people sit out a year after surgery before we let them go back to the court. I'm surprised he's able to play, and I'm glad for him."

Sutphin, who treats patients from Iowa and surrounding states, said he sees 15 to 20 patients a year with amoeba infections but only four or five require surgery.

"It's not a rare infection, but it's uncommon," he said.

McKinney plays with no guarantee that his problems won't return. The first week of November, his cornea began showing signs of rejection, and he was given a painful injection of steroids into the white of his eye to stave it off.

"All I can do is hope for the best," he said.

Coach Dana Altman said McKinney's return has been a blessing for a team dominated by underclassmen.

"His experience and knowledge of our offense is important, and then there is the added leadership he gives us," Altman said.

McKinney is convinced his youth and his desire to play aided his recovery.

"I tried to stay in a good mood and stay upbeat and positive about everything," he said. "I had so much support from so many different people, and that helped as well. Once I was told I might be able to play, I ran with it. It meant a lot to me to have a goal."

The biggest change from last year has been having to adjust to wearing goggles.

"I hate having stuff on my face," he said. "When I'm playing, I really don't notice them. But every time there is a stoppage, I always want to take them off."

But it's a small price to pay for playing the game he loves.

"It's fun to see Tyler out on the court again," Jim McKinney said. "He has that smile again."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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