The very first corneal transplant was performed back in 1905, it was a success but it took 40 more years for the first eye bank to open. The development of an eye bank allowed the donor corneas to be recovered after death and preserved to maintain tissue quality. If you experience the death of a loved one you may get a phone call from Florida Lions Eye Bank which is usually done within 24 hours of the death. The screening process is almost exactly the same as for organ donation but there are actually less restrictions on donors. According to the Eye Bank Association of America there are an estimated 44,000 corneal transplants done each year in the US and 95% of them are successful at restoring sight.
Everyone is considered a universal donor for corneal tissue — the donor’s blood type does not have to match the blood type of the recipient. Age, eye color and eyesight are not factors either. Aside from those suffering from infections or a few highly communicable diseases, most people are potential cornea donors. Even patients who die from cancer can donate corneas with the exception of an eye or certain blood cancers. This is because the corneas get their oxygen from the air, not the bloodstream. Corneal donation will not prolong the funeral process or interfere with the medical examiner. It will not prevent an open casket viewing as small rounded plastic prosthesis is placed underneath the eyelids to hold their shape. It is a 10 minute procedure that can be performed in the morgue or even the funeral home.
Most cornea recipients are patients suffering from long-term corneal disease that gradually causes blindness. For many of these patients, a transplant is their last hope of restoring sight, usually after years of other types of treatment have failed. Patients in the United States do not generally have to endure long waits for corneal tissue. This is because of a large number of selfless donors and the cooperation of their families, as well the meticulous work of eye banks throughout the country. Corneal transplant patients are wheeled into the operating room blind and come out with clear sight, nothing short of a miracle. The knowledge that your loved one’s eyes are enabling someone to see their children or grandchildren’ face, the blue sky, the green trees, the sun is hopefully enough to bring some comfort to the grieving donor family. As with all organ donation the donor family should expect to receive a letter from the eye bank with the follow up on the precious gift in about 3-4 weeks.