Interview: Gary Abud’s Cornea Transplants Motivates Him To Do The Greatest Good

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I met Gary Abud, Jr. at the Metro Parent Education Expo where we both did Ed Talks. He explained how to find your child’s inner geek. My talk was about adding diversity to your library. 

It’s so cool that he asked me to review his first book, What Color Will It Be?, which is about a 7 1/2-year-old girl who learns about how your eyes see colors and shadows. He has a special connection to educating people about vision because he had keratoconus, a disease that alters your vision. His vision was restored after cornea transplants.

Something funny is that Gary Abud, Jr. wanted to be a doctor, but became a teacher instead. He says “a series of events led me into science teaching and revealed that it was even more of a calling for my life.” He taught high school physics, chemistry, biology and computer applications. In fact, becoming a teacher was more rewarding than he thought. He won the 2014 Michigan Teacher of the Year award!

Here is my interview with him:

Question: How did it feel to win Michigan Teacher of the Year?

Answer: Being selected Teacher of the Year for the state of Michigan was an incredible experience. It felt humbling, affirming and yet challenging. I was thrilled to win the award and the experience that it brought was one of the most exciting opportunities I’ve had in my life—both professionally and personally.

I got to work at the Michigan Department of Education for a year, travel the country and collaborate with teachers from every state, go to the White House to meet President Obama, and give a TED Talk among other things. In the Teacher of the Year program, I learned some of the most valuable lessons about teaching, learning and life, and I met people who would become some of my closest friends.

Overall, the Teacher of the Year honor was not a solo achievement; instead, it reflected the efforts of many—what the students were doing in our classroom, how the school supported me, and all that I had learned from countless other great educators.

Q: How did you become an author?

A: A couple years ago I was trying to find storybooks that focused on science to read to my then-3-year-old daughter, and discovered there weren’t a lot of options. There were non-fiction books about science topics, but few stories with characters that she could enjoy. So I thought, maybe I could create one. I did some brainstorming and decided to turn some of my favorite science lessons and experiments into children’s stories. I began researching children’s books and the publishing process while creating a prototype of a story line with stick figure animations for one of my favorite experiments about vision.

Then, I met Liz Craft through our church, and she took my ideas for the book and made them a more stunning reality than I could’ve ever imagined. I worked with some editors to refine the story and eventually submitted it to publishers until it was accepted by Covenant Books in South Carolina last summer. I learned a lot about the authoring experience and process of publishing a book.

Q: Your daughter prefers fiction science books over non-fiction. What do you like best?

A: Yes. At her preschool age, Laina loves the stories and storybook characters of fiction—the more imaginative the better! While she enjoys learning and likes to take in new information, books need to hook her and that happens best for her through fiction.

When I was a kid, I enjoyed fiction but as I grew up my interest in non-fiction grew. Now, I read mostly non-fiction for myself — books on business, Christianity, education and popular psychology — but I also really enjoy reading the fictional children’s stories that are in my daughter’s library with her. They can be really fun, especially when we give voices to the characters in them sometimes!

Q: What is your favorite book and why?

A: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. I really enjoyed how Aslan saves Edmund, even when Edmund totally didn’t deserve it, and Aslan ends up gaining power by giving up power. It’s a magical story of good vs. evil, where good wins by losing. And that is an inspiring reality to envision.

Q: When you were a kid did you want a book like Science with Scarlett?

A: Actually, I think I would’ve enjoyed it a lot. I was very inquisitive and a scientific thinker as a child. And this book would have really got me thinking and curious to learn more, because the science behind it is so surprising. It’s books with ideas I never saw coming that really stand out the most to me.

Q: Do you think that children will expand their love of science if there are more books like this?

A: Absolutely. We’ve done some work with early childhood classrooms around science education, and kids connect with the excitement and surprise of science as well as the engaging elements of a story. When children see a kid scientist like Scarlett, I hope that they’ll see themselves, because she’s doing the experiment and learning right along with them in the story. I think they will connect with her and want to learn more. I think this book will spark their curiosity and get them wondering about the world.   

Q: At the Metro Parent event, you talked about fostering your child’s inner geek. What was yours when you were a kid?

A: This probably comes as no surprise, but science—specifically, the science of the eyes. Because I had an uncommon eye disease, I became fascinated with how the eye worked and what was going on with my condition. So, it got me interested in ophthalmology and that was something that sparked my interest in a career in medicine.

Q: What was your life like before the cornea transplant?

A: At different times growing up my vision changed, so life looked different at any given time. In elementary and middle school, I had slightly blurred vision and had to wear glasses. That was probably not much different than the average kid’s life who had to wear glasses (though mine were really thick!)

In high school, my vision got worse and the glasses no longer did the job for me. The world looked the way it might through a very rainy windshield before the wipers turn on. I had to wear special hard contact lenses to see. They helped my vision, but they also came with some challenges of their own. They would fall out at random times, like when I was playing tennis or out to dinner with my family, and even scratched my eyes.

Finally, as contacts were no longer an option and my vision got progressively worse, the world looked the way it would through a glass block window, and I could no longer read my textbooks for college or drive my car safely. That’s when cornea transplant surgery was recommended. 

I made a slideshow about how my eye disease impacted my vision and how the cornea transplant made a difference. I’ve had several people contact me over the years to tell me how much it has helped them to see this slideshow and have the ability to use it to help explain their vision situation to family members. Here is a link to that slideshow: https://www.slideshare.net/gabud/keratoconus-through-the-eyes-of-a-patient

Q: Has the cornea transplant changed your view on the world?

A: Having cornea transplants motivated me to want to do the greatest good with my life that I could and make the most of the opportunity to see that I had been given. It’s made me much more appreciative of the gift of sight and the value of life. It has humbled me and left me in awe at the same time, because I went from being unable to read a book, make out someone’s face, or drive a car to seeing better than 20/20.

It’s a miracle really. And it was only possible, because someone passed away and donated their corneas for me to have the transplant surgery. I guess that’s maybe why I like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe so much. My own experience was very much one that made me feel like Edmund. Someone died and it gave me a new chance at life. And there was nothing I could ever do to repay the family that lost their loved one whose cornea I received. If I’m truly being honest, that experience helped me to better understand God’s grace in the world and His presence in my own life. And it forever changed the way I relate to people and the world around me.

I hope that others get to experience that kind of miracle through the gift of sight, and that’s why 15% of the proceeds from Science With Scarlett are going to Eversight, the organization that makes cornea transplant surgery possible for people. I had my first transplant in ’07 and the second in my other eye was in ’08. That’s how I came up with 15%—because 7+8=15.

 

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