About Cornea Donation

Eye donation is the oldest form of organ and tissue donation, dating back to the first cornea transplant in 1905. This year, more than 48,000 cornea transplants will be performed in the United States, with thousands more performed worldwide. Saving Sight provided tissue for 2,985 transplants last year, making it one of the largest providers in the U.S. 

Cornea transplants are a leading cure for corneal blindness, which can occur at any age due to corneal disease, disorder, or injury. In many cases, without a transplant, a person can completely lose his or her sight, which affects that person's quality of life and ability to work. 

At this time, donated human corneal tissue is the most successful means for restoring vision lost to corneal disease or injury. That means when an eye donor makes the decision to give the gift of sight, a miracle can happen: vision can be saved.

Learn more about cornea donation and transplantation below, including how to join your state's donor registry. If you have any further questions, check out our Cornea Donation Facts page or send your question through our Contact Form. 


How to Register as a Donor

By pledging to become an eye donor upon your death, you are a hero to the thousands and thousands people in the U.S. who will need a cornea transplant this year. When someone loses his or her eyesight to a corneal disease or eye injury, a donor's gift can rescue that person from a lifetime of blindness.

Almost anyone can share the gift of sight. Your gender, blood type, age and race don't affect your ability to donate. Neither should the diagnosis of cancer, diabetes or poor vision. The only step you need to take is to join the donor registry in your state.

Join Your State's Eye, Tissue & Organ Donor Registry

The easiest way to pledge to become an eye donor is to add your name to your state's donor registry either online or at your local DMV. An eye, organ and tissue donor registry is a simple and confidential way to make your wishes about donation known to your family after you're gone.

All three states in the Saving Sight service region have first-person donor registries, meaning your choice to donate will be legally binding. This removes the burden from your family during a difficult and heartbreaking time in their lives. In addition, the registries allow you to choose which organs and tissue you wish to donate, and you have the opportunity to remove yourself from the list if you change your mind.

If you live outside of our service area and wish to find a registry in your state, please visit the Donate Life America website.

Talk to Your Family About Eye Donation

Another important step in making your decision to become an eye donor is letting your family know about your wishes, even if you join a first-person donor registry. By informing them of your pledge ahead of time, there will be no question of your decision upon your passing.

If you do not live in a state with a first-person consent donor registry, your next of kin will be asked to give the final consent for donation upon your death. If your family knows of your wishes ahead of time, it will be easier for them to give consent, which helps to save the sight of up to two people in need.

The Cornea Donation Process

The Human Eye

The cornea is the clear outer window of the eye that covers the iris and pupil, allowing light into the eye. It is the part of the eye most commonly transplanted. In addition, the sclera, or white of the eye, can be donated and used in other surgeries as well, such as the rebuilding of an eardrum to restore hearing.

Referral & Initial Screening for Eye Donation

When a death occurs, the hospital or related medical facility places a call to one of three organ procurement organizations in Saving Sight's tri-state area (Missouri, Kansas and Illinois). The organ procurement organization, in turn, relays information to our Donor Services Center (DSC). After gathering initial information, the organizations work together to determine if the person had registered as an eye, organ and tissue donor.

When consent for donation has been given, the DSC consults medical records and conducts a medical and social history interview with a member of the donor's family. 

Eye Tissue Recovery

Since eye tissue must be recovered within a few hours of a patient's death, Saving Sight has technicians on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When Saving Sight determines that the tissue is likely to be suitable for transplantation, the technician performs an in situ procedure to gently remove the cornea. The cornea is immediately placed in preservation media so it can be safely transported and stored until transplant.

In some cases, the entire eye is retrieved, but in situ procedures that only involve the cornea are far more common today. 

A blood sample is also taken from the donor during the tissue retrieval. The sample is then sent out for testing to detect the presence of infectious diseases like HIV or Hepatitis B or C. All blood samples are tested prior to distribution to eliminate the threat of infectious disease.

Corneal Tissue Evaluation

At a Saving Sight branch office, the donated corneal tissue is further evaluated for possible transplantation. A high cell count within the cornea is desirable and indicative of healthier tissue.

In some cases, the cornea is used for a full cornea transplant. Doctors may also request tissue for a Descemet's Stripping Automated Endothelial Keratoplasty (DSAEK) surgery, in which only the inner layer of the cornea is needed for transplant. To meet these requests, technicians in our Kansas City lab process the tissue for DSAEK surgery. 

Corneal Tissue Distribution

After a cornea has been cleared for transplant, Saving Sight's Distribution Team meets a corneal surgeon's needs by offering tissue for transplant. All corneal tissue is first offered to surgeons in our three-state region before being distributed nationally and then internationally. Although corneas can be stored for up to two weeks, U.S. physicians usually prefer to transplant donor tissue within five days of retrieval.