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Lions Eye Bank Of Manitoba And Northwest Ontario

There are currently 115 people in the region waiting anxiously for transplants.


It’s a discussion that always takes place at a terrible time, so a Winnipeg nurse wants families in both city and country to talk about it now.

The topic is actually a wonderful one – giving sight to people – but it is one that is seldom brought up in family conversation until a tragedy occurs. For RN Laurie Howells, executive director of the Lions Eye Bank of Manitoba and northwest Ontario, there is no time to waste.

“We have to talk to families at the worst time of their lives,” said Howells, who is serving her sixth year with the eye bank, located at the Misericordia Health Centre in Winnipeg. The centre has quietly run for 26 years, but Howells now wants more people to know about the important work that is accomplished there every year. And she wants to draw in helpers from rural communities.

“Our push now is to tell people that they need to become donors, and to talk to their families about their wishes. From the time of death until enucleation (harvesting of eyes) we have just six hours, if there is no cooling. If the eyes are cooled with ice, we have 12 hours from enucleation until preservation at our lab in Winnipeg.”

Because of this critical window of survival time to save the corneas, Howells helped start an enucleator program in Brandon in 2004. Already she has trained technician Cindy Alexander of Brandon, who today carries out the procedure to save eyes so that another may have sight. The newest recruit for the rural enucleator program is Karen Letts of Killarney, who began her training at Brandon Hospital in late January.

“I got involved through my dad, who is an optometrist in Killarney,” said Letts. “I will be one of the first in the rural areas to start procuring corneas. Once I am fully trained, which will take a couple of months to complete, I will be notified if there is a death at say, Killarney Hospital. I would then contact the family to discuss the option of donorship. If they agree, I have to go through and make sure there are no medical reasons that the eyes can’t be donated, such as hepatitis, HIV or other diseases. If it’s OK, I will conduct the procedure, and the organs will then be transported on ice to the Lions Eye Bank in Winnipeg, to their medical lab there.”

There are currently 115 people in the region waiting anxiously for transplants, said Howells. In 2008 there were 111 donors who, with wonderful grace, allowed their corneas to light up the world for someone else after their deaths. Those donors allowed the eye bank to carry out 136 surgical uses last year, including transplants, which took place in Manitoba and northwest Ontario.

The No. 1 cause of blindness is corneal disease, said Howells, but there are other ways that people can lose their sight. Traumatic injuries that puncture the eye, industrial accidents, such as burning, and scars from previous surgeries can all cost people an eye.

And although it’s called a “bank,” the shelf life of precious corneas is very short.

“We have about two weeks,” said Howells. “But most doctors don’t want to use them after 11 days.”

With two people already waiting for eye surgery just in Killarney, Letts said that as soon as a donation comes in, it is used. Signed donor cards, which many people carry along with their driver licences, help with the flow of communication, but the family always has the final word.

“A donor card is not a prerequisite, but they are good to have. It lets your family know your wishes,” she said. “But even if someone does have a card, we still have to ask the family. I wish more people would keep it in their minds, even though it comes at a difficult time.”

After the enucleation procedure, funeral directors take special care to reconstruct the eyes, said Letts.

“It does still look natural after death,” said Letts. “Funeral directors are trained in restoration techniques, and automatically do this for eye donors.”

To help raise money for lab costs and to run the eye bank program, snowmobilers throughout the province have once again taken to the trails to raise both awareness and cash for the important facility.

A gang of the snow-loving riders recently passed through Boissevain, and were joined there by the Killarney Tri-Lake Trailbusters as part of the annual Lions Journey for Sight in the province. The ride, which originated earlier this winter in Flin Flon, moves from one area to another, picking up new sponsored riders while others return home. The fluctuating team – who all purchase “Snowman” passes that are good for the province’s web of interconnecting and signposted club trails – uses groomed trails operated by local snowmobile clubs and their members. Some cover hundreds of kilometres to rack up sponsorship dollars.

“They asked us to accompany them a week before the ride,” said Killarney Trailbuster Curtis Dickson. “We didn’t have time to arrange sponsorship, but we wanted to take them through our trails. We took the scenic route through the Turtle Mountains. The Tri-Lake Trailbusters will be going on it next year – we will get some guys locally to go on the ride and get some sponsorship lined up ahead of time. I heard these guys we met are going to La Riviere, Waskada and Brandon, and hope to raise $15,000.”

Any person interested in becoming part of the Rural Enucleator Program is invited to contact Laurie Howells at the Lions Eye Bank of Manitoba and northwestern Ontario for more information. Some medical background or knowledge is necessary, said Howells. For information telephone: (204) 788-8419, and leave a voice mail message if necessary.

– Kim Langen writes from Holmfield, Manitoba

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