Why become an eye donor?
By donating your eye tissue after you pass away, you can give someone the precious gift of sight – or help with life-changing medical research.
Throughout your life, your eyes do so much for you. They allow you to experience the richness of the world, to navigate independently and connect with the people around you.
After death, when you no longer need them, your eyes can continue to do a vital job. Your eye tissue can give another person the precious gift of sight. Alternatively, they can be used for important medical research, contributing to discoveries that have the potential to help many people in the future.
“Corneal transplants have the highest demand of any transplantation in Australia,” says Dr Graeme Pollock, Director of the Lions Eye Donation Service, located at CERA.
“From a quality of life point of view, sight is incredibly important – it’s one of the most important things we have. Corneal transplantation literally gives people back their sight, and that’s an amazing thing.”
What is eye donation?
Almost anyone can donate eye tissue after their death. Cataracts, poor eyesight and age do not prevent you from donating. In many cases, the cause of death doesn’t matter either.
“Potentially, you’ve got more chance of being an eye donor than any other form of donation, including blood donations,” Dr Pollock says.
“In 2018, 291 eyes were donated to the Lions Eye Donation Service, leading to 476 corneal transplants.
“The great thing about corneal tissue is that everyone is a universal donor, regardless of blood type, eye colour and eyesight.”
There are two main parts of the eye that can be used for transplants:
- The cornea. The cornea is the clear surface at the front of the eye, which plays an important role in focusing our vision. Corneal transplants can restore sight in people who are partially or completely blind due to corneal damage from disease, injury or infection. During transplantation, a disc-shaped segment of the cornea is replaced with a similarly shaped piece of a healthy donor cornea.
- The sclera. The sclera is the white part of the eye. Donated sclera tissue can be used for eye grafts and surgical reconstruction, which can prevent blindness in people who have experienced eye injury or have had cancer removed from their eye.
If you have had previous eye surgery or eye disease, your suitability will be assessed at the time of donation.
Eyes that are not suitable for transplantation may be used for medical research and education instead (if you give specific consent for this).
The whole eye can be useful for research and teaching purposes. Research into glaucoma, retinal disease, diabetic eye disease and other sight disorders is essential for advancing our understanding of these conditions and developing new treatments and cures.
How does eye donation work?
As the cornea begins to deteriorate rapidly after death, the eye needs to be removed within hours of death. Once consent is confirmed, the donation team will begin an assessment process with the donor’s next-of-kin and medical team, which will include an exploration of their medical history.
The eye tissue retrieval is performed by highly-skilled surgeons under sterile conditions, and usually takes around an hour or less to complete.
The donor’s body is always treated with complete dignity and respect. After the procedure, they will look the same as they did immediately before. Surgeons will make sure all features are maintained, so you won’t be able to notice any changes. An open casket viewing can still go ahead if the family desires.
“There are no skin incisions and no blood. Even if you look carefully you can’t tell it’s been donated – so the appearance is not something to be concerned about,” Dr Pollock explains.
How to become an eye donor
Choosing to donate your eye tissue after your death is a personal decision. If you have decided you’d like to be an eye donor, there are two things you should do to make sure your decision is honoured at the time of your death.
The first is to register your wishes with the Australian Organ Donor Registry. It only takes a minute online, and all you need is your Medicare card number. You can also register through your myGov account, the Express Plus Medicare App or a printed form if you prefer.
It’s also important to talk to your family and make sure they know your wishes. In Australia, the family is always asked to confirm the decision before donation can go ahead.
“There is a constant need for corneas, because we can’t store them. It’s not like we can put them on the shelf and pull them off when we need to do a transplant,” Dr Pollock says. “Because the demand is high, the donor rate needs to constantly remain high too.”
Eye donation during COVID-19
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.
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.
If you wish to become an eye donor after your death, record your decision on the Australian Organ Donor Register.
The Lions Eye Donation Service is a joint venture between the Lions Clubs of Victoria and Southern New South Wales, the Centre for Eye Research Australia, the University of Melbourne and the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital.