Sixty years ago, two organizations—the University of Minnesota and the Lions—combined their aspirations and their resources to create the Minnesota Lions Eye Bank (now Lions Gift of Sight). Both recognized that they held the common interest of serving the people of Minnesota, and one way to act on this service was to give the state an eye bank.
Dr. Harris, chair of the Department of Ophthalmology, laid the groundwork for an eye bank by developing a plan to ask the families of deceased patients at University of Minnesota-affiliated hospitals to donate their loved ones’ eyes. He then worked with the School of Mortuary Science to establish a mutually-acceptable technique for removing donor eyes.
Austin, Minn., Lions club member, George Dugan, solicited Lions club support across the state and arranged financial backing for an eye bank. Thanks to Mr. Dugan’s efforts, Minnesota Lions, at their annual meeting in June 1960, unanimously adopted the eye bank resolution, and the Minnesota Lions Eye Bank was born.
In the spring of 1961, Minnesota Lions presented the University with a check for $6,400 to cover the first year's operations: $4,000 for a technician, $1,800 for clerical help, and $600 for miscellaneous items. Lions contributions increased regularly as the eye bank program expanded, and today Lions donations top $200,000 per year. These donations support not just the eye bank but also help the Lions Children’s Eye Clinic, the Lions Macular Degeneration Center, eye research efforts at the Lions Research Building, and the Lions Eye Surgery Center.
Lions club members solicited public support for the eye bank by instituting a donor card system. By the early 1970’s, thanks to the outreach of local Lions clubs, approximately 100,000 Minnesotans carried donor cards asking that their eyes be donated to the Minnesota Lions Eye Bank after death. Lions, always with an eye on eliminating preventable blindness, had the foresight to include donation for research purposes on the first Minnesota eye donor cards!
To facilitate eye donation throughout the state, local Lions clubs provided hospitals with eye donor kits, containing the necessary instructions and materials to enable any physician to remove eyes from a deceased person. But how to get the donated eyes to the eye bank in time remained a problem. Fortunately, in June 1962, the Minnesota Highway Patrol stepped in and offered to relay donated eyes from patrol district to patrol district (with lights and sirens, if necessary!) until they reached the University Hospital in Minneapolis. For 42 years, the Minnesota State Patrol was a dedicated transportation partner, helping the eye bank serve its 86-thousand square mile territory.
Minnesota governors also contributed to the cause, proclaiming one week in March as “Eye Bank Week.” In 1983, President Ronald Reagan added national support when he proclaimed the first National Eye Donor Month. Now Congress designates each November as Eye Donor Month.
Funeral Director Support
By the early 1970s, the number of eyes coming to the eye bank had plateaued to about 200 per year. Despite statewide efforts, most donations still occurred in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Metro Area, and eye donation opportunities for deceased persons in greater Minnesota were severely limited.
One attempt to clear this bottleneck and bring eye donation services to the entire state was the 1974 legislation authorizing specially-trained morticians to remove eyes, thus increasing the supply potential. The eye bank developed a training program to teach funeral directors enucleation (the removal of eyes for eye banking purposes). Funeral directors enthusiastically embraced the program, and over the years became increasingly active in supplying donor material to the eye bank. The cornerstone of eye recovery in greater Minnesota for 30 years, they enucleated more than 10,000 eyes and helped thousands receive corneal transplants.
Funeral homes are still vital partners in the field of eye donation and family support and a number of Lions Gift of Sight staff members are licensed funeral directors.
Corneal Storage Breakthrough
In its early days, cornea transplantation was similar to modern organ transplantation: A donor cornea had to be transplanted within a few hours of the donor’s death. This restriction severely limited the number of potential transplants.
In 1972, the Minnesota Lions Eye Bank developed organ culture preservation, which allowed long-term storage. Later, the eye bank was instrumental in developing a solution that preserved the cornea for up to two weeks and permitted corneal surgeries to be performed as scheduled procedures. Short-term storage revolutionized eye banking, and the technology is still in use around the world today.
On January 1, 2018, Minnesota Lions Eye Bank changed its organization name to Lions Gift of Sight. Several compelling reasons led to the name change decision, including:
- Minnesota Lions Eye Bank, now Lions Gift of Sight, serves a large area that is outside of Minnesota, and a name that is not state-specific is more inclusive.
- The word “bank” often leads people to believe that we are involved in finance. The new name does not prompt the same misconceptions.
- As eye banks diversify, their services to surgeons include resources that do not fall under traditional “eye banking.”
Whether as Minnesota Lions Eye Bank or Lions Gift of Sight, we are committed to providing the best service to all who benefit from our work. Thank you for more than 60 years of support!