Eye Bank is always open for rush transplants

An eye transplant can take as little as 45 minutes and be done across genders.

by Geoffrey Ziezulewicz

For University student Jennifer Mochinski, accidentally scratching the cornea of her right eye posed some huge problems.

“I had a fungus in one of my contacts,” she said. “The fungus grew in my eye.”

After five weeks of what Mochinski described as a big, crusty “wad of sleep” in her eye, and doctors unable to figure out what was wrong, she had a cornea transplant.

“My eye was really excruciating until I had the transplant,” Mochinski said. “Once they got the bad cornea out, there was no pain at all.”

Mochinski received her renewed eyesight from the Minnesota Lions Eye Bank, which conducted the transplant. Tucked away on the ninth floor of the Phillips-Wangensteen Building on campus, the eye bank has been connecting eye donors and recipients since 1960.

Funded by a philanthropic group the Lions Club, the eye bank gets funding grants from the club and charges a processing fee for moving corneas and eyes.

The bank receives eyes or corneas donated by the deceased or their families, said Jackie Malling, the bank’s executive director. Some of the eyes go to people waiting for replacements. The bank provided 877 eyes for transplant surgeries last year. Others go to the University’s ophthalmology department for research purposes.

For eyes to be useful for transplant, they must arrive at the bank within eight hours of the donor’s death, Malling said.

The Minnesota State Patrol transports eyes to the bank, although they gradually will stop serving that duty, Malling said.

The eye bank is currently negotiating with the state patrol regarding that matter, she said.

Around 350 calls go out per year for the eye bank to pick up or receive eyes or corneas, she said. As a result, the eye bank is always open.

Once received, the eyes are transported to surgeons who do the transplants.

The process can take as little as 45 minutes, Malling said, and the success rate for transplants is more than 90 percent.

Eye bank recipients range from newborns to senior citizens and eye afflictions befall many age groups, Malling said. The bank’s oldest recipient was 101.

Eyes don’t have to match by gender she said. A female recipient can receive an eye from a male donor.

Betty Jane Walen, 84, has volunteered at the eye bank since 1985. In 1981 and 1984, she had cornea transplants and said the procedure encouraged her to volunteer.

Walen is the bank’s emotional liaison and spends her days doing fact-and-figure work while writing letters and speaking to groups about the eye bank.

Walen recently took a call from a parent inquiring as to how her child’s eye had been used.

“That hit me emotionally,” Walen said.

Now a third-year physiology student, Mochinski works at the eye bank that helped her rid of her corneal crud and restore her sight. She said she likes that she can come in any time and do her lab maintenance duties.

“It means more than a lab spot,” Mochinski said of the job and the world of eye transplantation. “It hits close to home. In a way, I know I’m giving something back because they gave me sight.”