A ‘visionary’ can help the blind see the world

On October 3, 58-year-old R.R. Surendran of Valluvar Colony on Old Natham Road died of myocardial infection. His brother called Aravind Eye Bank to donate the eyes. A hospital team visited the house and collected the eyes as per the family’s wish and wife’s consent.

The following day, the eye bank received a call from the same house with another donation proposal. Unable to bear the grief, Surendran’s wife R. S. Prema suffered a cardiac arrest and passed away. The family members volunteered to donate the woman’s eyes too. The couple’s corneas have given sight to four individuals.

Gestures like these assume significance in the context of efforts to make voluntary eye donation a mass movement. Such acts are acknowledged, particularly on World Sight Day (second Thursday of October), which was observed on October 10 this year, and during the National Eye Donation fortnight held from August 25 to September 8.

A particular incident which moved the eye donation campaigners was that involving a woman from Bangalore whose husband died on October 14 while on a holiday in Kodaikanal.

Umeshkumar Rao (53), a college principal from Bangalore, had travelled to Kodaikanal with his wife Sreelatha. He collapsed suddenly on Monday night and was declared dead on arrival by a hospital there. Though grief-stricken, the woman immediately contacted the Aravind Eye Hospital to donate her husband’s eyes. A medical team from Dindigul went over and collected the eyes within five-and-a-half hours of death.

“The woman was committed to donate her husband’s eyes even though she was away on holiday. It shows that the urge to donate eyes must come from family members,” says S. Aravind Srinivasan, Administrator, Aravind Eye Care System.

Indian scenario

India has around 20 lakh people with corneal blindness who can regain their sight through eye transplantation. As per a report of Eye Banks Association of India, 20,468 corneas were transplanted in India in fiscal 2013. While one lakh are on the waiting list for surgery, another 20,000 cases of corneal blindness are added every year in the country.

Madurai has two eye banks — Rotary Aravind International Eye Bank and Government Rajaji Hospital Eye Bank. Both work in collaboration through a special memorandum of understanding signed to execute the Hospital Cornea Retrieval Program.

According to M. Veerasamy, national convener, National Ophthalmic Associate Association, there must be an awareness of preventable blindness too because 80 per cent of visual impairment is avoidable. “We have to motivate people to donate eyes, but at the same time it is essential to focus on preventing irreversible blindness. It is important to identify eye problems at an early stage, especially in the case of children,” he points out.

D. Saravanan, eye bank manager, Aravind Eye Hospital, points out that the collaboration with GRH is yielding good results as two grief counsellors are always available to talk to family members and relatives about eye donation.

The Aravind Eye Bank collected 1,507 eyes in 2012, of which 775 were used for transplantation and the rest sent for research and training purposes. From January to September this year, 1,173 eyes were collected and 724 were utilised.

Dr. Srinivasan says more people are stepping up to donate eyes.

“Merely filling pledge forms or registering with an eye bank are not enough and of no use. The family members should call the eye bank when a death occurs,” he says.

The shelf life of a retrieved eye is 12 days and transplantation is performed as per the waiting list. Injuries to the eye, birth defects, infection, post-operative complications from eye surgery or chemical burns are among the major causes for corneal blindness. Corneal transplantation is the only way out in these cases.

Ophthalmologists want people to know that eye donation does not disfigure the dead body and the procedure takes only about 10 to 15 minutes. The eyes are tested for tissue quality before they are used.

Refractive errors among school children are an area of concern for ophthalmologists and they point out that seven per cent of children of school-going age need spectacles.

The Government Rajaji Hospital, which is spearheading the eye donation campaign, is witnessing a positive trend. P. Thiagarajan, Head, Department of Ophthalmology, says the presence of grief counsellors at the mortuary is yielding positive results since they are able to persuade the families of the deceased to donate eyes.

“Last week, we received three pairs of eyes on a single day. There were three deaths and all three families came forward to donate eyes after counselling,” he says. In 2012-13, the GRH received 65 pairs of eyes and the same trend is maintained this year too. There are about 70 persons in the GRH waiting list for eye transplantation.

“It is always better to use the cornea within 24 hours. Since there are good storage facilities available these days, eyes can be stored for three days,” says Dr. Thiagarajan.

For some, blindness is irreversible. No medical intervention can give them vision. But there are many others with reversible blindness who will be able to see the world if a cornea transplant is done.

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