updated 12/31/2004 4:44:37 PM ET 2004-12-31T21:44:37

For the first time in 22 years, a tear came to the eye of Roger Beck.

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The 29-year-old man has a rare disease that cost him one eye and left him legally blind and unable to make tears in the other. But on Thursday, Dr. Randal C. Paniello transplanted a saliva gland from Beck’s neck to a spot near his temple, where it can provide moisture that can preserve the eye.

The 12-hour surgery was the first of its kind in the United States, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Friday. The procedure has been successful about 80 percent of the time in treating dry-eye conditions in other countries, the newspaper said.

Beck arrived for the operation with a baby doll and a Spider-man doll, loaned to him by his twin 4-year-olds, Denton and Anna, in case he needed a hug or a kiss.

“If I could have produced tears, I would have had one then,” Beck told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The Sikeston resident was 7 when his immune system turned on him. He developed a high fever, then his skin turned red. Blisters soon covered him from head to toe, inside and out.

He was eventually diagnosed with Stevens-Johnson syndrome, which is usually caused by a reaction to drugs, though in Beck’s case, it may have been triggered by a viral infection. His mother blames a dirty swimming pool.

The disease ravaged Beck’s skin and mucus membranes and left him with diabetes. After weeks in the hospital, he was legally blind and unable to make tears. His lash line split in two, causing one set of lashes to grow inward.

His eyes dry quickly, forcing him to add drops every 10 to 15 minutes, and still sometimes his eyelids rasp across his eyes, scratching his corneas and dimming his sight.

“Can you imagine sandpaper scratching your eye every day, all day long?” said Rhonda Huffman, Beck’s mother.

Worse are the inverted eyelashes, which slice at his eyes like razor blades every time Beck blinks. He has suffered numerous surgeries to remove them. Severe infections led to the loss of his left eye when he was 12.

“I feel like Job every day. God told the devil, ’You can do anything to him except kill him.’ I’ve been there,” Beck said.

Doctors warned Beck that he could lose sight in the remaining eye at any time, and a dwindling number of options to preserve the eye led him to Thursday’s procedure at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

The procedure bathes the eye in saliva, which is mostly water but also contains a mild thickening protein called muscin, which could help the eye retain moisture better. The saliva’s weak digestive enzyme, amylase, hasn’t appeared to damage eyes of past patients, Paniello said.

Later, another surgeon will attempt to reconstruct the inside of Beck’s eyelid to stop it from scratching his cornea.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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