TMH Living Well: The story behind eye donations

Facts about eye donation

■ You can register when renewing your driver’s license or ID card;

■ It is okay to designate eye only or make other restrictions;

■ The donated eye often is matched to a person of a similar age;

■ Eyes used for research often

help eye surgeons practice new techniques;

■ Open casket is highly possible, especially with cornea donation;

■ Eyes are not recognizable as donors;

■ Donation is free of charge;

■ If you sign up to be a donor, let your family know;

■ The need outweighs the number of donations; and

■ Most donations are used.

Death by accident or natural causes is rarely welcome, but when it happens, knowing some good came out of a loved one’s passing is comforting. Eye, organ and tissue donations are “gifts of life,” as the Donate Life Colorado website pronounces.

Craig serves as an area eye donor site, thanks to Rebecca S. Warren, R.N., chief quality officer with The Memorial Hospital.

Years ago, Warren chose to become a technician for the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Bank in Denver. She covers not only Moffatt County, but Routt and Rio Blanco as well. This can mean late nights and long days of travel when she gets a call to receive an eye donation — which happens once or twice per month. Sometimes it occurs at the hospital, but often she travels.

“I have a jump bag packed at work for when I get a call to recover tissue. Because we want the tissue in the best condition possible, sooner is always better. I must complete my work within 24 hours,” Warren said.

Being an eye bank technician is above and beyond her regular job, and the hospital supports her in taking the time she needs. It’s Warren’s job to arrive on site, sterilize the area and surgically remove the eye, saving the entire globe or, more often, only the cornea, as this part is in most demand.

“I am a registered nurse, so taking care of medical needs comes naturally to me,” she added.

Once Warren places the cornea in a sustaining solution, it is shipped to the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Bank as quickly as possible.

“We send it via Fed Ex or on an airplane out of Hayden. Sometimes Lions Club members manually deliver it, and other times we even call on the police. It all depends on the timing,” Warren said.

Technicians at the eye bank match the eye tissue to a list of waiting recipients and then deliver it straight to a requesting surgeon. The eye bank in Denver makes 2,000 transplants possible each year. Cornea replacement can restore vision in people who are otherwise blind.

“We had a single mother in town who lost her vision to eye disease. She had to quit her job in banking because she couldn’t see. The last thing she wanted to do was go on public assistance. She contacted the eye bank and received corneal transplants. She was able to go back to work and support her kids,” Warren stated.

Warren said eye donations are put to good use — donations of entire globes can help more than 20 people, and corneas can be sliced and used to restore sight for more than one individual.

“Before tissue is donated, it is inspected under a microscope and tested for infection or disease. If any is present, it isn’t used,” she added.

Most of the time an eye can be used, even when cancer or other disease is present. According to the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Bank (www.corneas.org), diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease, high cholesterol, poor eyesight, and age do not affect eye donations.

What’s really satisfying is that the donor’s family is informed about how the eye was used. Names are not revealed, but they know whether it was used in a transplant. Most are. If the eye bank doesn’t have a match in Colorado, it sends the tissue to outlying states, and even out of the country to make sure the tissue is put to good use. Donors may even receive an anonymous letter of thanks from the recipient. Warren has heard that two of the corneas she recovered went to children in Ireland and Saudi Arabia.

“Sometimes a family donates their loved one’s tissue, and they hear that it was successfully transplanted before the funeral. It helps them get through that hard day, ” Warren concluded.

This weekly article with tips on living well is sponsored by The Memorial Hospital at Craig — improving the quality of life for the communities we serve through patient-centered healthcare and service excellence.

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