A Surgeon’s Perspective
Eye surgeons link donor to recipient but are part of the larger chain in the gift of sight.
By Kerry Halladay - November 14, 2022
Dr. Michael Chen, Division Chief of Ophthalmology at Denver Health Medical Center, went into medicine because he wanted to help people. He also wanted to travel and see the world. The combination meant he pursued ophthalmology, a medical specialty that is desperately needed around the world.
“I saw much unnecessary blindness and preventable blindness,” he said of his time as a volunteer for Unite for Sight in Ghana. Some of this blindness was due to corneal blindness. After his cornea fellowship training, Dr. Chen went on to work at Tenwek Mission Hospital in Kenya for 2 years. While there, he encountered a patient from South Sudan who had lived through the country’s civil war and was bilaterally blinded by corneal scarring.
“He seemed to be locked in his world,” Dr. Chen said of the patient prior to receiving a corneal transplant. After the surgery, he was a very different person. “I got to follow him at least a year out after his surgery, and I got to see his personality open up. He was engaged with his surroundings. He was making eye contact with people. That was a big success story.”
That story and countless others couldn’t have happened without the support of U.S. eye banks. While in Kenya, Dr. Chen worked mostly with the Alabama Eye Bank and the Delaware Valley Eye Bank. Despite their remote location, Dr. Chen said their clinic’s eye bank partners were able to get them donor corneas in a matter of a few days.
So great was his experience of working with eye banks that when he arrived at Denver Health and the University of Colorado in December 2021, Dr. Chen knew he wanted to reach out to his local eye bank: the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Bank.
“I’ve been very impressed by the support the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Bank has given us.” For over 40 years, RMLEB has provided high-quality eye tissue for transplantation and medical research to partner surgeons like Dr. Chen, locally and around the globe. We take pride in supporting the essential work of eye surgeons.
RMLEB is just one among 66 accredited eye banks in the U.S. The efficiency, robustness and interconnectedness of the U.S. system means donated eye tissue helps restore sight locally, nationally and internationally. Additionally, RMLEB’s service area of Colorado and Wyoming remains among the top states in the country for people saying yes to donation, making the gift of sight possible.
“We really must thank and be grateful to our societal culture that there are so many willing donors out there.”
The eye surgeon who transplants a donor cornea into a recipient is one of the most obvious key connection points between donor and recipient. Dr. Chen calls that direct connection a privilege and an important role of a surgeon.
“The blade is in our hands when the surgery happens; but at the same time, we couldn’t do our jobs if it weren’t for everybody else in the whole process. When my patients are behind closed doors thanking me after the surgery, I ask them if they realize that there were probably over 50 to 100 people who were involved in this.”
The chain starts with the willingness of donors, but there are many more links between donor and recipient. There may have been family and friends involved in the decision-making. There’s the hospital staff who helped facilitate the donation process. The coroner and funeral service professionals were likely involved. There’s also eye bank staff, researchers improving techniques, those who make financial contributions, regulations and safety of the system and more. Even seemingly unassociated people, like those working at the local utilities, as part of making cornea donation and transplantation possible, according to Dr. Chen. Every link in the chain is integral; not a single link can be taken for granted.
“The gift of sight really is a gift, and it’s not to be taken for granted. I'm really appreciative of everyone in this process.”