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Meet the frontline eye bank workers helping to save sight during COVID-19

Things look a little different for the Lions Eye Donation Service during the challenging times of COVID-19, but the eye bank is as busy as ever.

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CERA’s Lions Eye Donation Service plays a vital role facilitating corneal donation and transplantation, giving Australians the precious gift of sight.

For someone with a damaged cornea, a corneal transplant is often their last hope of restoring vision. This sight-saving operation is only possible because another Australian chose to donate their eye tissue after their death.

During COVID-19, some corneal transplant recipients have had to postpone their surgery because the operation is considered elective.

Victoria’s second lockdown has now brought further restrictions on elective surgeries, with non-urgent cases being paused to free up more hospital beds and staff to treat COVID-19 patients.

However, the Lions Eye Donation Service has continued to adapt to the changing demands, and is working hard to facilitate eye tissue donations for vital surgeries and prepare for future transplants.

A day in the life of the eye bank

 

The Lions Eye Donation Service is one of Australia’s largest providers of donated eye tissue for transplant and medical research.

Based at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital, the eye bank is a joint venture between the hospital, the Centre for Eye Research Australia, the Lions Clubs of Victoria and Southern New South Wales, and the University of Melbourne.

Adrienne Mackey and Gavin de Loree are transplant coordinators at the Lions Eye Donation Service, working to facilitating the process of eye and corneal donation, from consent through to allocation to the recipient.

“Not only are we responsible for a 24-hour on-call service for the state of Victoria, but we are also responsible for retrieving and preparing tissue for transplant and research,” Mr de Loree explains.

“A large part of the role is educating hospital staff and guiding families through the donation process.”

A day in the life of a transplant coordinator involves reviewing donor medical histories, confirming consent for donation and performing surgical retrievals of donated tissue.

Or they could be in the eye bank, preparing corneas for surgeons prior to transplant, reviewing pathology results, or sending outcome letters to donors’ loved ones.

“It’s rewarding to know that we are genuinely making a difference in people’s lives,” Ms Mackey says.

“Corneal recipients often write letters of thanks to the family of their donor and it is incredibly satisfying to read about how the transplant restored their independence and ability to work and enjoy their hobbies again.”

Working through challenging times

 

The COVID-19 situation continues to change daily. For patients waiting on a corneal transplant during the lockdown, these temporary changes in healthcare may cause some uncertainty and concern.

However, Ms Mackey assures patients that the eye bank is doing everything it can to facilitate urgent transplants.

“We want waiting transplant recipients to know that we are taking every measure to ensure there is corneal tissue for their surgery. If we are unable to provide it locally, we will work with the other eye banks in Australia to do our best to ensure it is available.”

Along with postponed surgeries, the COVID-19 crisis has brought many challenges to the daily operations of the eye bank, with delays in receiving consumables, limited operating theatre time and flight restrictions affecting the transportation of tissue between states.

“In a lot of cases it has made us busier,” Mr de Loree says. “At times It can be a bit like juggling – now we are very good at juggling. Our surgeons are also very mindful of getting priority cases through to have the best recipient outcomes and we do our best to facilitate that.”

Screening of donors and safety measures at the Lions Eye Donation Service have always been stringent and extremely effective in preventing transmission of disease through donated tissue.

COVID-19 has prompted an even greater degree of precaution, and the eye bank has taken additional measures to protect the donor tissue, the recipient of the tissue and staff, above and beyond its routine safety procedures.

The importance of eye and corneal donation

 

For sight-saving transplants to happen, corneal donation is essential. By choosing to register as an organ and tissue donor after your death, you can make a meaningful difference to someone’s life.

“Reduced vision can have such an enormous impact on quality of life, and more people require a corneal transplant than any other organ or tissue, excluding blood,” Ms Mackey says.

Almost anyone can donate their eye tissue after death, regardless of eyesight, cataracts and age. “You can restore sight by donating eye tissue when you are well into your 80s,” Mr de Loree says.

During the COVID-19 crisis, donation is as vital as ever, and the Lions Eye Donation Service assures potential donors and their families that it is still an option. If a donor is eligible, our eye bank team will conduct all screening before accepting.

“There is always a need for eye donation,” Ms Mackey says. “I would encourage people to share their donation wishes by speaking with their family and registering on the Australian Organ Donor Register.”

If you wish to become an eye donor after your death, it’s quick and easy to record your decision online. Visit the Australian Organ Donor Register for more information.

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