EYE DONORS: Giving Sight To The Sightless

Many of us have checked the box when we get our drivers licenses, agreeing to donate our eyes when we die. But really happens with those donations? 

For more than 40-years, Dennis Crabtree of Altoona has volunteered to deliver corneas from recently deceased donors to the Iowa Lions Eye Bank in Iowa City.  But he never realized the full impact of his work — until it helped his wife regain her sight.

“When we heard it was amazing,” Dennis Crabtree says, “She was having eye problems and I drove the eyes to Grinnell and relayed here and she got called in for a special surgery and…maybe I carried the very eyes that were used in the transplant.”

“It’s amazing and I wouldn’t probably be able to see today out of my left eye if I hadn’t of had it done,” Linda Crabtree adds.

Volunteers like Crabtree are a very important component in a whirlwind process to give sight to the sightless.  It all starts when a donor dies.  “We have staff statewide that will go out and provide that procurement any time, day or night, holidays, and then get that tissue back here to our office as quick as possible” says Adam Stockman, the operations director at the eye bank.

The tissue is brought to the eye bank, usually by a volunteer like Crabtree.   The clock is ticking though.  The corneas only have a shelf-life of about two weeks.. so everyone here has to work fast.  Once they’re delivered, they’re looked at under a microscope to make sure they can be used.  Meanwhile, workers comb through the donors medical records, looking for any diseases or medications that could affect the recipient.

“You want to make sure that you don’t get something that could hurt a recipient.  That’s our main goal is that you don’t ever want to offer up a tissue that could hurt a recipient.” says Sheri McCormick withe the Iowa Lions Eye Bank,  “Usually it’s 48 hours to get everything processed, reviewed, cornea tissue looked at, medical chart and testing back so if we can get that in 48-hours that’s excellent.”

Meanwhile, the distribution department is working the phones — searching the state, the country and in some cases the globe for a suitable recipient.

“I have nine surgeries to fill on a Tuesday.  Here we are on a Saturday or a Sunday and we only have two donors.  And we need to turn around those two donors. And we need to start looking for some more.” says Distribution Manager Todd Shintulas.

“What if surgery is delayed?  We have a back up plan in place to make sure that that cornea doesn’t go to waste,” Stockman says, “That that special gift doesn’t get discarded.”

Once a recipient is identified, the corneas are prepared for surgery.  Using the same kind of laser used for lasic surgery, the cornea is sliced reducing it from the width of a dime — to the width of a piece of Saran wrap.

“We’re the only eye bank in the country and one of the only eye banks in the world that can provide all of the types of processed corneas for use in surgery so any type of surgery that a cornea surgeon in the world wants to do they can get it from us with Iowa donated tissue,” Stockman says.

Once it’s cut it can be shipped anywhere it’s needed — all in just 48 hours. The folks here are under a lot of pressure to meet that deadline.  Think about it, on the donor’s side they’re fulfilling a person’s dying wish to give someone the gift of sight.  And on the recipient’s side, they’re fulfilling a lifelong dream of being able to see.  They understand the importance of this gift. Stockman says, “They’re gonna do what it takes to make sure that these corneas make it to where they need to get to by the deadline.”

If you would like to donate your eyes, you can register on the Iowa Donor Registry:  IowaDonorRegistry.org

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