By choosing to donate your eye tissue after you pass away, you can give someone the precious gift of sight or help with important medical research. Here are a few things you should know.
Why become an eye donor?
A precious gift
You can choose to donate your eyes after you pass away. If your donation is suitable, it can beused to help others - either through transplant operations or medical research.
The two eye tissues used for transplant are the cornea and sclera.
The cornea is the clear ‘window’ covering the front of the eye and focuses light entering the eye. It must be transparent and regular in shape to focus light correctly. A corneal transplant involves replacing an impaired cornea with a healthy donor cornea and is often the last hope of restoring vision for the recipient.
This sight-saving operation is only possible because someone chose to donate their eyes after their death.
The sclera is the white part of the eye. It can be transplanted for reconstructive surgery for people with eye trauma, tumour removal, and for glaucoma surgery.
Who can donate?
The good news is that almost everyone can donate their eyes after their death. Eye donors can have any eye colour, blood type or level of eyesight. Common eye disorders such as cataracts, glaucoma, or surgery such as LASIK do not prevent eye donation.
Donor age is not as important as it is for other organs or tissues - many eye donors are elderly.
There are a few conditions, such as HIV and Hepatitis, that prevent eye donation but most health conditions including cancer, heart disease and diabetes do not impact the ability to donate.
Corneal transplants can help restore vision in people who have a damaged cornea. Damage can happen through infection, injury or diseases like keratoconus.
This sight-saving procedure is only possible if there is a donated cornea to transplant. In New Zealand, around 350 corneal transplants are performed each year - all of these are from donated corneas supplied by the New Zealand Eye Bank, which is based in the Department of Ophthalmology in The University of Auckland.
Except for blood transfusion, corneal transplants are the oldest and most common form of human transplantation.
Helping with medical research
You may also choose to donate your eyes or eye tissue to medical research. Your donation can help researchers at The University of Auckland to better understand eye diseases. This can lead to new treatments and cures.
The University of Auckland is an international leader in eye research, working to achieve better treatments for eye disease.
How do I become an eye donor?
To become a donor, the most important step is discussing your wishes with your closest family or friends (your ‘next-of-kin’). Without their consent, no donation will occur. Talking to them in advance will help prepare them for this process.
Being listed as a donor on your driver's license does not mean you will automatically become a donor after your death.
For the eye donation to happen the Eye Bank needs to be notified as soon as possible after your death by hospital staff, GP, funeral director, family, or a referring donor agency.
Confirmation after death
Before recovering an eye donation, the NZ National Eye Bank or associated donation service will confirm your wish to donate with your ‘next-of-kin’.
This takes place once the NZ National Eye Bank or associated donation service is notified of your death. For this reason, it is important that your family let medical or nursing staff know your wish to donate. Donation surgery needs to be performed within hours of the donor passing away.
In many cases a donor hasn't registered their wishes. In these cases, the New Zealand Eye Bank or associated donation service will ask the ‘next-of-kin’ to consent to the donation of their loved one's corneas.
Once consent to donate has been confirmed or established, the team will assess if your tissue is suitable to donate. This includes getting information about your medical history from your ‘next-of-kin’ and the medical team (or your GP).
Frequently asked questions
If people register as ‘Donor’ on their driver's license, will they automatically become eye donors when they pass away?
No. The registering as ‘Donor’ on driver's license information is only stored by Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency and is purely an indication of your wish to be a donor.
What does donation involve?
After suitability is determined, your next-of-kin will be asked for their consent. Questions about your medical and social history will be asked to determine suitability, and this information remains strictly confidential. If consent is given, the donation occurs usually within a few hours. For the donation the entire eye is removed, and a small blood sample is tested for infectious diseases for the protection of the recipient.
Does eye donation affect appearance?
There is no noticeable difference to the appearance of the donor and viewings can occur without concern.
How long does the donation take?
The donation is quick, around 30 minutes, and funeral arrangements will not be delayed.
Do families get informed of the outcome?
All donor families receive grateful thanks and general anonymous information about the recipients from the donor agency, but by law the identities remain confidential. The New Zealand National Eye Bank can facilitate anonymous correspondence between recipients and donor families if either party wishes.