Corneal Transplants and Organ Donation

Corneal Transplants

Heart, kidneys, liver, lungs… these crucial larger organs are what typically come to mind when one hears the term “organ donation.” Yet there’s a smaller unsung hero in the family of potential organs that donors are desperately waiting for – the corneal transplant.

Though not a life-saving procedure, a corneal transplant is an incredibly important donation that can significantly improve quality of life, restoring lost vision and reducing severe or chronic pain for tens of thousands of Americans each year.

Reasons for a Corneal Transplant

The cornea is the outermost part of your eye that performs a variety of functions, which include:

  • Protecting the eye from dust, dirt, and other foreign and potentially harmful material.
  • Distributing nutrients from tears to the rest of the eye.
  • Functioning as the outmost lens of the eye, controlling 65 to 75% of its entire focusing power and regulating the entry of light into the eye.

If the cornea is hurt in any way, it can form a scar that impairs vision. Similarly, if the cornea is injured or damaged, it leaves the rest of the eye open to an infection that can potentially cause severe pain and lead to vision loss. There are also a variety of degenerative diseases that slowly eat away at the corneal tissue, resulting in blindness.

Common afflictions that lead to the need for a cornea transplant are:

  • Serious injury, such as those from severe scratching or poking.
  • Complication from infection (keratitis).
  • Corneal scarring.
  • Glaucoma.
  • Cataracts.
  • Corneal dystrophies.

Many serious infections and dystrophies can cause a buildup of cloudy material in the cornea, resulting in severe pain, loss of clarity, and in serious cases, complete vision loss. However, through the donation of cornea tissue, most of these afflictions are curable through a corneal transplant.

How Corneal Transplants Work

Corneal transplants, or “keratoplasty,” replace the damaged, diseased, or scarred cornea with new donor tissue. The surgeon removes the cloudy or damaged cornea with an instrument similar to a cookie cutter, and sews on the donor tissue with a very thin thread that stays on for a specific period of time (months or years, depending on the initial severity of the injury or disease).

Success Rates and Recovery Time

Corneal transplants are the 2nd most common transplants behind blood donations – over 44,000 transplants are performed each year. Due to modern technological advances, they record an average success rate of 95%. The procedure is typically done in an outpatient clinic, and most patients are able to simply visit their ophthalmologist to have the threads removed when ready.

Recovery time varies based on the procedure and how quickly the body accepts the immune system, but positive results are usually recorded within a year of the surgery. Most patients receive eye drops to use for several months to aid in the healing process. Some may receive prescription medications, or be instructed to wear some sort of temporary eye patch or protection to guard against further injury.

Potential Risks

Though cornea transplants are one of the safest procedures, there is still the possibility that the body’s immune system may reject the new cornea, mistaking it for a threat to the eye. Symptoms of corneal rejection include pain, redness, light sensitivity, and sometimes loss of vision. It is estimated that 10% of recipients experience some form of rejection, and most cases can be treated with medications.

Other complications include:

  • Irritation or infection.
  • Corneal swelling.
  • Cataracts (clouding of the lens).

Corneal Organ Donations

Through the generosity of organ donors, a cornea transplant has the potential to effect countless positive changes in the lives of recipients. Corneal transplants are unique in that anyone can be a donor – there does not have to be any specific type of blood or tissue match. As long as the donated tissue is free from disease or infection itself, it can be donated to someone in need.

The donation is made anonymously through an eye bank, which collects the corneal tissue within hours of the donor’s death. Contrary to many organ donation myths, the donation does not affect funeral arrangements or the donor’s appearance.

How You Can Help

When you apply for or renew your driver’s license, you have the option of signing up to be an organ and tissue donor. Your application should give you the opportunity to specify what organs and/or tissues you wish to donate. If it doesn’t, ask your DMV representative how to give specific consent, or visit your state’s organ donor organization website.

Most importantly, make sure to tell your family your wishes to donate. In every state, the eye bank is required to ask the patient’s family if he or she wanted to be a donor, regardless of whether he or she had already signed up as one. Make sure that your family and close friends are aware of your intentions, and file a back-up written declaration with someone you trust.

If you aren’t sure whether you’re signed up for eye and tissue donation, or if you haven’t yet signed up to be an organ donor in your state, you can do so on our Organ Donor page. It takes only moments to do, but for those recipients waiting for the chance for a donated organ, your gift lasts a lifetime.

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