Eyes donated to
enable another to see
By MATT FURBER
Express Staff Writer
Wood River Chapel Funeral Director
Russ Mikel successfully performed the "harvest" of a pair of eyes for a
cornea transplant recipient last week. The procedure required timing and
coordination of many players and the consent of the donor’s family to be
The relatives of the donor and the
recipient have chosen not to reveal their identities.
"Currently we do need a signature
from next of kin to go forward with the procedure, even if the victim
has a donor card," said Jay Lugo, coordinator for the Idaho Lions Eye
Bank. "The main mission is to eliminate blindness in Idaho."
Clinical coordinators at all
hospitals are required to call a (donor) referral line on all deaths.
Families have the burden to accept or reject the option to donate if the
individual body has viable organs and tissues for donation, Lugo said.
Mikel doesn’t particularly like
the word harvest, but it is his job to get the tissue in a sterile
environment ready for transportation. Typically, a dead person is kept
on life support machinery and transported or held for a team of
technicians if body parts are going to be salvaged, he said.
However, cornea transplants are
not considered acute emergency procedures, though timing is still
important. Eyes can remain viable for transplant procedures for up to 10
days. Most Idaho cornea transplants are completed within four days, Lugo
Mikel is one of 70 enucleators
around the state, mostly funeral directors who are trained to support a
donation system sponsored by the Idaho Lions Club. Saving organs and
tissue from a dead person to help improve or save another’s life is not
a new idea, but it is a complex process that Mikel and others help to
facilitate on a volunteer basis. Mikel has been trained in the procedure
for nearly 20 years.
The first successful human corneal
transplant was performed in 1904. The first Eye Bank started in New York
in 1945. Eye banking in Idaho began in 1969 at Saint Alphonsus Hospital
in Boise, where technicians remove the cornea and screen them for HIV,
Hepatitis and other diseases.
Since 1969, the Idaho Lions Eye
Bank has been working to coordinate corneal transplants for patients
whose eyesight is compromised by damaged or diseased corneas. In the
last decade the Lions Eye Bank has reduced the waiting list of patients
from 30 to 40 to three or four, Lugo said.
Corneas are avascular—they have no
blood vessels—which means that the blood types of the donor and the
recipient don’t need to be the same. Still, there is a matter of timing
There are about 6,000 people in
the U.S. who are on a waiting list for new corneas, but in Idaho the
list is essentially down to zero, Lugo said. "It is due to the good
coordination of the program," he said. Extra Idaho corneas are sent as
far away as Germany, Asia and South America. Eyes that are not suitable
for transplant are often used for medical research or training.
"It’s a good feeling to know you
can help in getting that done," Mikel said. Although Mikel has never
recovered eyes before, he regularly gets requests and permission to save
pacemakers. The pacemakers are redistributed through a program called
Heart to Heart in Billings, Mont. Most pacemakers are sent to foreign
countries because FDA regulations prevent them from being transplanted
in the U.S.
Since St. Luke’s Wood River
Medical Center does not have a morgue, Mikel got the call last week to
recover the eyes of a deceased person at the hospital. His training in
eye recovery and his skill as a funeral director made it possible for
the victim’s eyes to be donated and still be ready for an open casket
funeral service, Lugo said.
"Our success rate is 98 percent,"
Lugo said. "(Enucleators) do an awesome job."