Clear Vision: Corneal Transplants
Despite the strides made in making life easier for people with visual impairments, the restoration of a person’s sight has a huge impact on his or her life. For people living with damaged or diseased corneas, a transplant can both enable them to see and reduce or eliminate the pain of living with damaged corneas.
The cornea is the clear covering of your eye. If it doesn’t function properly, your vision will be affected. Common vision problems related to the cornea include astigmatism as well as myopia (nearsightedness). While doctors can treat these conditions with eyeglasses or surgery, if a cornea is significantly damaged due to disease or an accident, a corneal transplant may be necessary to restore sight or reduce a patient’s pain.
The Transplant Process
Corneal transplants are fairly common: Doctors perform 40,000 procedures annually and, surprisingly, the transplant is usually an outpatient procedure, performed under local anesthetic. After the surgery, patients will need to wear an eye shield for a period of time. Patients will also need to carefully protect the eye with the transplanted cornea for the rest of their lives.
There is a significant need for cornea donors: According to the Musculoskeletal Transplant Foundation there is a need for over a million cornea transplants each year. Unfortunately, many people will never get a cornea because there simply aren’t enough donors to meet the demand. By choosing to be an organ donor, you can help others to eventually regain their sight.
Interested? Check out Organdonor.gov to learn more about how organ donation works. You can also sign up to be an organ donor when you renew your driver’s license: The clerk at the licensing office will be happy to help you get registered.
(It’s also a good idea to let your family know about your decision.)
While most corneas used in transplants are from deceased donors, in rare cases, a living person can donate a cornea. The only time this happens, however, is if the donor loses an eye (due to a tumor or other serious condition) and that eye has a healthy cornea that can be donated to another person.
It’s also possible for a person to donate a cornea to him/herself: If a person suffers from total blindness in an eye that has an otherwise healthy cornea, and vision problems due to corneal damage in his/her other eye, it is possible for a physician to transplant the healthy cornea from the blind eye into the functioning, but damaged, eye.
Doctors are also having success in restoring vision with artificial corneas, in some cases finding that they work better than corneas transplanted from a human donor. One type uses stem cells. Another procedure involves sewing collagen into a person’s eye, triggering the development of the patient’s own cornea. These procedures are currently experimental, but provide hope to people on donor waiting lists.
Sometimes people talk about “eye donation” instead of cornea donation, causing the misconception that it is possible to transplant an entire eye.
Unfortunately, there is currently no such thing as an actual eye transplant: If someone loses an eye, it isn’t possible to replace it with a functioning eye from a donor, though people who have lost an eye can wear an ocular prosthetic (an artificial eyeball) for aesthetic purposes.
Apparently, eyes are simply to complex to be transplanted. According to Dr. Rachel Bishop, an ophthalmologist at the National Eye Institute, there are over a million nerve connections between the eye and the brain, and medical technology is not at the point where a surgeon can make the connections necessary to ensure that the eye can function.