Minnesota eye bank provides life-changing cornea transplants

Elena Rozwadowski

For 56-year-old retiree Betty Walen, a routine eye appointment turned into a life-changing day more than 30 years ago, when she was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease.

Soon after the appointment, her sight began to decline. At her worst, Walen couldn’t see friends’ faces until she was standing next to them, read signs at the airport or even pass the eye exam for her driver’s license.

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Minnesota Lion’s Eye Bank

But a trip to the bank changed all that.

Whalen had a cornea transplant in 1981 with tissue that came from the Minnesota Lions Eye Bank, which collects and tests eye tissue for cornea transplants.

Since her transplant in 1981 and another in 1983, Walen has been living her normal life and volunteering at the eye bank.

“It gave me the opportunity to open a whole new door,” Walen said. “I’m very grateful for the vision that I have.”

Lions is the only eye bank in Minnesota, founded by the Minnesota Lions Club and the University in 1960 as part of the ophthalmology department.

Director Jackie Malling said the bank was founded to serve the community, providing a chance for vision restoration to more than 35,000 cornea transplant patients each year.

Malling said injuries or corneal diseases can severely impair

vision. Even unhealed scratches can lead to the need for a cornea transplant. In some cases, patients can go completely blind.

“It affects every area in their life,” she said. “We really do serve the community.”

Before the eyes even reach the bank, the donor’s medical history must be checked to rule out disqualifiers like infectious diseases, although eye donor criteria is looser than other organ and tissue requirements, Malling said.

For example, poor vision or cancer won’t necessarily rule out a candidate. Even age isn’t a factor: Malling said there have been 80-year-old corneas that are in better shape than those of a 20-year-old.

Donor families or friends must also confirm the donation, even though donors can make the decision long before their death, like any organ donation, said Communications Director Sara McFee.

“We always try to recognize the families of donors,” McFee said. Families can decide to donate their loved ones’ eyes, even if the deceased did not make the decision.

“A lot of people say yes because they want to be helpful,” she said. “They feel that a lot of good comes out of their loved one’s death.”

The eye bank receives and stores new eyes each day. Although they don’t have tellers’ windows or ATMs, there is a rigid system in place for receiving, testing, preparing and storing the eye tissue.

Volunteer Lions Club members and bank staff are trained to collect and transport eyes from hospitals in Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin.

When they arrive, the eyes are cleaned and the cornea is removed and tested. If the cornea meets transplant requirements, it’s prepared for surgery.

Technical trainer Jason Merkel said the cornea is about the thickness of a credit card. Considering all preparations are done by hand, the process is a delicate one.

The most delicate process is one that was developed at the University, and it involves slicing the cornea in two. This, again, is done entirely by hand, using a small oscillating blade and a chamber slightly larger than a roll of quarters that simulates a human eye socket.

By separating the tissue, surgeons are able to replace the bottom half of the cornea, providing quicker recovery time for patients.

“If the muffler goes on your car, you don’t replace the whole car,” Merkel said. “You just replace the muffler.”

Although this procedure is limited to patients with specific corneal diseases, it can be used on about 40 percent of those who need cornea transplants.

Malling said this partial transplant is revolutionary, comparing it to a “tsunami passing over the medical and eye bank community.”

“The ‘U’ is looking for leaders, and we’re really embodying that,” Malling said.

Any tissue ineligible for transplant can be used for research. The bank has partnerships with several other research programs, including those at the Mayo Clinic, and continues to study degenerative eye diseases and new treatments for them.

“Nothing goes to waste,” in the bank’s lab, Merkel said, and it all makes a difference.

“Organs get all the press, but we make a big difference, too,” Merkel said.

McFee agreed and said she is always amazed at the number of people who qualify for and benefit from cornea transplants.

“Cornea transplants may not be lifesaving,” McFee said, “but they are life-changing.”