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Seeing Your Way to Eye Donation

When most people think of organ donation, they naturally think of the four most common organs transplanted: kidney, liver, heart, and lung. All are critical, and matching a donor with a recipient can mean the difference between life and death.

But did you know that the eyes are also an organ and can be donated to restore sight to people with corneal blindness?

"The only substitute for a human cornea is another human cornea donated at death by someone who then leaves a living legacy," says Utah Lions Eye Bank executive director, Chris Hanna. "But not everyone thinks about, or has a lot of information about this type of donation, so we're constantly trying to shed light on the facts."

With more than 10 million people awaiting corneal transplants and researchers all over the world in need of eye tissue, here's what Hanna and his team at the Utah Lions Eye Bank want you to know and to share.

What Does the Cornea Do?

The cornea is the clear, dome-shaped surface of the front of your eye. It makes up about two-thirds of your eye's total optical power. It also helps protect your eyes from germs, dust, and things that might fly into them.

People with corneal blindness live with significantly impaired vision because of damage to this complex, five-layer surface. This type of blindness can be caused by either a disease or a corneal injury. The two most common diseases are keratoconus and Fuch's dystrophy.

Keratoconus causes a steep curve on the cornea that causes visual distortion. It may result in double vision, glare, halos, and starbursts—all of which make day-to-day living a challenge.

Fuch's dystrophy happens when the endothelial cells that make up one of the five layers of the cornea slowly deteriorate, causing the eye to swell. The result is an uncomfortable glare and sensitivity to light, eye pain, halos, and difficulty seeing at night.

There is no cure for advanced cases of either condition, but 95 percent of corneal transplant surgeries can successfully restore a person's vision.

Who Can Donate?

Unlike many transplant needs, eye donors and recipient don't have to be matched by blood type. Anyone, of any age, and just about any health condition is a universal donor and can designate their eyes for donation. Exceptions include people suffering from highly communicable diseases such as HIV or hepatitis.

You can still donate even if you have bad eyesight or have had cataract or LASIK surgery. Only the cornea is transplanted, and surgeons only do one cornea at a time, so when a pair of eyes is donated, two recipients benefit.

Donors may also opt to donate their eyes for ongoing research into eye diseases. The Utah Lions Eye Bank works with numerous labs at the John A. Moran Eye Center and other institutions.

Will Eye Donation Affect Funeral Arrangements?

"One of the questions we get from a lot of donor families is whether or not eye donation will affect a loved one's appearance or delay funeral plans," says Hanna. "The answer is no, it will not. The process is timely and respectful and our eye bank specialists work very hard to maintain the loved one's normal appearance."

There is always a waiting list for cornea tissue, so once it is evaluated and processed, the tissue is sent to surgeons in Utah or around the world to be placed in the eyes of patients waiting for a transplant that only a donor can provide.

"We understand—donating the gift of sight is a life-changing decision that touches so many people's lives," Hanna emphasizes. "It's normal to have questions, so please ask. We welcome them all."

The Utah Lions Eye Bank-John A. Moran Eye Center is the only nonprofit eye bank procuring eyes in Utah, southwest Wyoming, and northeast Nevada. Learn more and find a donation form.