Since 1991, Dakota Lions Sight & Health has helped enable the restoration of sight through recovery and distribution of ocular tissue for transplant. Today, we operate in South Dakota, North Dakota, Western Minnesota, and Northern Nebraska and the ocular tissue we recover is distributed to our service area, the rest of the United States, and throughout the world.
About Eye Donation
The first cornea transplant occurred in 1905, making eye donation one of the oldest methods of organ and tissue donation. Each year, eye banks throughout the US provide eye tissue for over 70,000 transplants per year. Dakota Lions Sight & Health provided ocular tissue for over 550 transplants last year, categorizing us a mid-sized eye bank.
The cornea is the clear outmost layer of the eye. It is dome-shaped and covers the front of the eye. Corneal blindness can occur at any age. When the cornea is cloudy or scarred, due to disease, disorder, or injury, light cannot penetrate the cornea to reach the retina. As such, poor vision or blindness can result. In addition to the cornea, the sclera (white of the eye) can be used in other surgeries, such as patch grafts or reconstructive procedures. The whole eye is not transplanted.
There is no substitute for human tissue. The transplantation process depends on the selfless gift of eye donation from one human to another. When you make the priceless decision to donate, you can restore sight in another.
The Donation Process
When a death occurs, the hospital or other medical facility makes a telephone call to an organ procurement organization (OPO). These organizations are federally-designated to serve geographic areas of the country. In our service area, LifeSource, based in Minneapolis, MN, is the OPO. When the OPO receives a call, they relay the information to the eye and/or tissue bank. Both organizations work together to share information quickly and to ensure donation wishes are fulfilled.
Once the OPO has passed the information to Dakota Lions Sight & Health, our Donation Coordinators obtains consent from the donor family, reviews initial medical information, conducts a medical history interview with the donor family, and dispatches our recovery technicians.
Eye tissue must be recovered within a few hours of the donor’s death. Dakota Lions Sight & Health has technicians who are on-call 24/7 and are ready at a moment’s notice to perform the recovery procedures.
The cornea is surgically removed from the donor and immediately placed in a preservation solution to ensure safe transport and storage until transplant. A blood sample is also obtained and sent to a testing laboratory where it is tested for infectious diseases such as HIV, Hepatitis B, and other diseases which pose a risk to the recipient.
The cornea is then transported to our main office in Sioux Falls. The cornea is evaluated in our laboratory for transplant suitability. Our specially-trained technicians use microscopes and other instruments to check for damage, determine endothelial cell density, and to ensure the tissue meets the criteria for transplant. Such criteria is determined by regulatory standards, our medical directors, and individual transplanting surgeons. Before being released for transplant, our Medical Director or designee reviews the donor’s medical records, all testing results, and tissue evaluation results, and makes a final eligibility determination.
Once released for transplant, the tissue is either sent directly to surgeons or is further processed. Processing occurs in our eye laboratory under sterile conditions. Dakota Lions Sight & Health processes corneas using either the DMEK or DSAEK process, depending on what is requested by the transplanting surgeons. Both methods remove the outer layers of the cornea, leaving the healthy inner layer. This small inner layer may be as small as 10-20 microns (DMEK). Transplanting the small inner layer as opposed to the entire full-thickness cornea allows for much faster recipient recovery. Oftentimes patients will have restored vision in a matter of hours following surgery.
The entire eye donation and transplantation process usually takes place within 3-5 days. Shorter preservation to surgery intervals are related to more successful transplant outcomes. During and after the donation process, we offer a comprehensive donor family support program to recognize and support the incredible generosity of donors and their families.