City Pulse ‘Vision for all-BHEL’s Call’ garners around 1,000 eye donation pledges from employees

Despite possessing the medical facilities to perform corneal transplants with a 90 per cent success rate, an estimated 6.8 million Indians with corneal blindness languish in endless waiting lists awaiting donors, according to Sankar Nethralaya. Pegged yet again on awareness creation and removal of myths the 27 National Eye Donation Fortnight, observed in and around BHEL, garnered around 1,000 eye donation pledges from its employees.

A mobilising force behind the event, ‘Vision for all- BHEL’s Call’, K. Selvaraj, master technician at BHEL, Tiruchi, says he was moved by a documentary on blind people he saw on Doordarshan in 1993. Taking it upon himself to restore eyesight to as many persons as possible, Selvaraj enrolled himself at National Eye Bank established by Joseph Eye Hospital as an ‘eye donation motivator’.

Road blocks

“But it was a tough and often humiliating job convincing family members to donate eyes of their deceased loved ones,” says Selvaraj, recalling his rather unsuccessful stint as a motivator between 1994 and 1998. Superstitions, suspicions, fear of a defaced body and apathy marked the refusals, according to him.

“But the situation turned around when I began clubbing my efforts at promoting eye donation with social service activities targeted at blind people in the district,” he says.

While the number of eye donors he convinced hovered around a dismal 100 for four years, Selvaraj believes the goodwill he earned through his efforts to provide for and rehabilitate blind people had a booster effect on the number of donors he roped in. “Today, I have helped 1,412 persons suffering from corneal blindness to regain their vision, through 706 pairs of eyes donated.”

Social Deterrents

While he acknowledges that society has considerably matured in the way its reacted to eye donation requests, Selvaraj feels the stigma persists: “Nowadays people call me on their own to arrange for the donation, within hours of a death in their family, but there are a lot more people who still fear being born without eyes in their next birth and about angering a God who created them without defect,” he says.

Another important hurdle is the misconception that the body would be left with gaping holes for eyes, once they have been removed, to which he says the team from the eye bank “will replace the eyes removed with prosthetic or cosmetic eyeballs and black sutures that look like eye lashes.” Apart from these reassurances, Selvaraj cites examples of a five-hour-old infant donor and a 104 year-old donor to clarify age concerns.

Process and precautions

However, there are certain precautions that need to be taken while eyes are donated, according to Raj Mohan, ophthalmologist at Joseph Eye Hospital. “The family must ensure the eyes are kept covered with a wet cloth or cotton and the body housed in an air conditioned room or in a room without fans,” he says, explaining how to prevent the eyes from drying out. Stating that the eyes have to be collected within six hours of death, Dr. Mohan says the procedure takes about 30 minutes. “Along with the eyes, a blood sample is also taken by the team to rule out possibilities of the donor being HIV or hepatitis positive,” he says, adding that in case the results are positive, the eyes are strictly reserved for research purposes.

At the eye bank, the eyes are stored in preservatives of different strengths depending on the period they need to be preserved for. “Usually, the corneal transplants are done as and when the eyes come in, within a period of 24 hours, though there are cases where the eyes are stored at the bank for a week or even up to six months.”

In the future

Referring to recent advancements in the procedure, Dr. Mohan says, “It is now possible to replace just the damaged layers (among the cornea’s five layers) with good, corresponding layers from the donated eye.” Also, research is on to further optimise the use of the remaining corneal layers from the donor eyes.

Keeping the cause in mind, eye banks generally charge no fee for procuring the eyes from the donor, though the transplantation could cost between Rs.2,000 and Rs.8,000.