Janice Smith, Maryland Heights, can still remember how isolating her life had become before she had cornea transplant surgery in both of her eyes several years ago.
She couldn’t see well enough to read, watch TV or drive. Even with glasses, her vision was just too blurry and hazy, a result of a rare inherited eye disease known as Fuchs’ Dystrophy.
The cornea is the transparent front surface of the eye and in Fuchs’ Dystrophy, the cells that line the back of the cornea deteriorate causing a buildup of fluid that leads to cloudy vision and pain.
Smith doesn’t know who the people were who agreed to donate their eye tissue to the Heartland Lions Eye Bank in St. Louis after they had passed away, but she’s grateful.
After she had the cornea in her right eye replaced in 2006 (the left eye was done in 2007), she could finally see things clearly again.
“It was like a miracle,” Smith told The Missourian.
Her donors could well have come from Mercy Hospital Washington, which last year provided 18 donors that resulted in 24 cornea transplants in Heartland’s three-state service area and beyond.
“For all of us who need it, it’s such a blessing!” said Smith.
“If I hadn’t had this, it would have ended my independence.”
Local Lions Support
It’s that very reason that area Lions clubs support the cause, both through financial donations and vision screenings to identify conditions like lazy eye in young children and glaucoma in seniors.
In April, the Washington Lions Club will offer lazy eye screenings for children at the Parenting Fair being held Saturday, April 21, at Four Rivers Area Family YMCA in Washington. The club has a digital camera that identifies through a photo printout whether or not a child has lazy eye, astigmatism, is nearsighted or farsighted.
“This digital technology is fabulous,” said Leon Hove, a Washington Lions Club member who is active in the group’s vision mission.
“It makes a tremendous difference in school . . . if a child can’t see the board, they’re lost.”
Lions members also bring these screenings to area preschools, and with permission from the parents, screen every child who is enrolled for free.
The club also directly pays for vision tests and glasses for children whose families are at the poverty level, said Hove.
“Research shows that up to 20 percent of children have undiagnosed vision problems, but many never display the symptoms one would associate with vision loss,” the Missouri Lions Eye Research Foundation notes on its website, www.mlerf.org.
In May, the Lions will have a booth offering glaucoma screenings at the Senior Fair being held at East Central College Friday, May 18, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The group uses funds it raises through local events to support these screenings. Hove estimates as much as 40 to 50 percent of the Washington Lions Club’s fundraising proceeds are used to improve people’s vision.
That includes direct payments for people who can’t afford needed surgery for things like cataracts and cornea transplants.
Up until about two years ago, Washington Lions Club members used to help transport donated eye tissue to the Heartland Lions Eye Bank in St. Louis. The hospital staff would remove the tissue, and the Lions members would come in to pick it up and drive it to the bank.
Today trained staff from Heartland Lions Eye Bank come to the hospital to retrieve the tissue and transport it.
Eye Donation Process
Unlike organ donation where donors and recipients have to be matched on a number of criteria, making the wait time for an organ often several years, the eye donation process is far more simple, said Kim Boehmer-Maslovara, senior branch manager of the Heartland Lions Eye Bank in St. Louis and hospital services coordinator for Washington.
There is no “matching” process for eye donors and recipients. They don’t even have to be the same blood types, she said.
“This is due to the fact that the human cornea is avascular, meaning that it is not supplied by blood vessels,” Heartland’s website (www.hleb.org) explains.
“Therefore, the body is much less likely to reject a cornea than it would a vascular organ like a heart or liver.”
But to be able to donate eye tissue, timing is critical. Tissue needs to be recovered within eight hours of a person’s death, said Boehmer-Maslovara, and the sooner the better.
“Surgeons like for the corneas placed in the preservation media as close to the time of death as possible,” she commented, noting that’s why the eye bank has technicians on call 24 hours a day to collect it.
After the tissue is recovered, it is evaluated for possible transplantation to determine how healthy it is. A high cell count is ideal.
Also a blood sample taken from the donor during the tissue retrieval is tested to detect the presence of infectious diseases like HIV and Hepatitis B and C, according to the website.
Who Can Donate?
Just about everyone can be an eye donor, even if they had poor vision or serious medical conditions like diabetes or cancer, said Boehmer-Maslovara.
There is no age limit, although the Heartland Lions Eye Bank will offer corneal tissue for transplant from donors ages 2 to 75. Donors who are outside of that range can supply tissue for research.
“We look at a person’s whole history,” said Boehmer-Maslovara. “We don’t want people to rule themselves out.”
The fact that eye donors don’t have to be carefully matched with recipients means people in need of a transplant don’t have to wait very long.
“A doctor can call the eye bank and say, ‘I would like to have some cornea tissue by this date, and we can take care of that because we have quite a bit of eye tissue,” said Boehmer-Maslovara, noting Heartland is the fifth largest eye bank in the country.
The bank distributes tissue locally first, but also nationwide and even internationally, if there is a need.
There are roughly 42,000 people in the United States who need a cornea transplant, Boehmer-Maslovara said. These are people who have lost their sight as a result of a corneal disease or eye injury.
Sign Up to Donate, Talk to Your Family
In order for someone to become an eye tissue donor, a person can sign up at the state’s online donor registry (www.donatelifemissouri.com). This is a first-person donor registry, meaning it’s legally binding and a person’s family doesn’t have to make the decision regarding his or her final wishes.
The registry allows a person to specify which organs and tissue to donate, and even allows you to remove your name from the list should you change your mind.
Another option to let people know you want to be an organ donor is to sign the back of your driver’s license.
However, neither of these may not be enough to ensure your organs are donated, if that was your wish, said Boehmer-Maslovara, because before any organs are retrieved, the transplant organization or eye bank also will need information from the family, so they need to be as willing to participate as the donor was.
“We need information, like the person’s medical history, so if the family doesn’t agree with it, they are an obstacle,” she explained.
“We can run into problems when a family doesn’t know a person wished to be an organ donor, so we just say, ‘Talk to your family.’ I can’t stress that enough.”
For more information, people can visit the Heartland Lions Eye Bank website at www.hleb.org or contact Kim Boehmer-Maslovara at 314-428-4373, extension 102.