Story by Neethu Ramchandar
Photos by Emily Fraysse
“I was on the phone with her at 10 a.m. and by 1 p.m. she was dead,” says Dorothy “Dee” Walsh, whose daughter, Amy Benson, died suddenly in 2007.
The 26-year-old had been out shopping when she collapsed in a seizure. Paramedics were able to revive her twice en route and once again at the hospital, but by the time her mother arrived, Benson had passed away.
“It was an incredible loss and the grieving process was slow and painful,” Walsh says, “but even in such a hard time we knew that my daughter’s death would be a gift to someone else.”
Benson was an organ donor.
Representatives of Oregon’s only eye bank, Lions VisionGift, contacted Walsh shortly after her daughter’s death. Benson’s eyes would be donated, they explained.
“It’s hard to put it all into words,” Walsh says. “You love someone so much and you never want them to be taken from you. For someone to suggest that they want to take just a part of them is even harder. But you have to realize that by giving this gift, a piece of your loved one lives on forever.”
It’s the message that organ donation is a gift that the Lions VisionGift team works to share. The group determines the eligibility of every potential donor that becomes available in Oregon and southwest Washington. Once a donor is selected, a VisionGift specialist calls the grieving family and talks them through the donation process while local technicians head to the hospital to collect the tissue.
“We’re lucky in Oregon because we tend to have a constant supply of eyes,” says Corrina Patzer, Director of Business Development for Lions VisionGift. Each year approximately 600 corneal transplants are performed in Oregon, many of them at the state’s two largest care centers: the Casey Eye Institute at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) and the Devers Eye Institute at Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center. In the 37 years since it opened, Lions VisionGift has provided tissues that have helped more than 18,000 people see.
It requires constant gratitude and education to keep a community donating, says Patzer. In order to be successful, Lions VisionGift must be more than just an eye bank.
In 1925, Helen Keller challenged the public service group Lions Club International to be “knights of the blind in the crusade against darkness.” In response, the Lions began opening organ banks across the US, and eventually the Lions Eye Bank of Oregon in 1975. Last year the group changed its name to Lions VisionGift to highlight what a life-changing present an organ donation is.
“It’s the most unselfish gift you can give,” says Lynda Myers, who received a corneal transplant in 2007. “I was in jeopardy of not being able to drive and I was about to lose my job,” she says of the time before her surgery.
After waiting six months for surgery, Myers had both of her corneas and some surrounding tissue removed, which had been compromised by a genetic disorder called Fuchs’ dystrophy. Her right cornea was donated from a 65-year-old man; her left, from a 35-year-old woman.
“Although I think about my donors everyday, my eyes don’t feel like their eyes,” Myers says. “They look like my own and they feel like my own.”
Myers says her surgery was as painless as “going to the dentist,” despite the need for her to be awake throughout the procedure.
“I remember that my doctor was training another doctor so he was explaining each step as he went along,” Myers says. “That was fascinating and I kept telling myself that I’d remember the whole thing for the rest of my life. But after all the drugs wore off, I couldn’t remember a single step.”
After her surgery, “colors seemed vibrant,” Myers recalls.
“I know that doctors warn patients that it can often take the eyes some time to adjust after the surgery, but it wasn’t like that for me,” she says. “I was able to see colors much brighter and shapes appeared more rigid.”
Myers’s eyesight rapidly improved as her vision transitioned from 20/80 to 20/20 in one eye and 20/25 in the other.
“I was going to be legally blind and now I have nearly perfect vision,” she says. “It’s like every day is Christmas Day.”
After her transplant, Lions VisionGift offered Myers a packet with suggestions for post-surgery recovery and opportunities to contact the families of her donors. Walsh was given a similar packet after her daughter’s donation.
Although Lions VisionGift encourages recipients to write thank-you letters, which the organization sends to provide all involved anonymity, it took Myers nearly two years to contact her donors’s families.
“I didn’t know what to say,” Myers explains. “I can’t simply write: ‘Dear Donor: Thanks a lot for the eye. I’m having a great life now. I’m sorry for your loss. Love, Lynda.’ This is the most unselfish gift someone can give. I needed them to know how truly grateful I am.”
Myers continues to wait for replies to her letters. Although she knows it is unlikely that she’ll hear back, she says she would love to meet each donor’s family, if only to express her gratitude.
Although Walsh’s family never received a letter from a recipient, she knows her daughter’s donation is appreciated.
“Lions VisionGift sent us a medallion to honor Amy,” she says. “I still hang it near her picture.”
Walsh also received a letter inviting her to join the Lions VisionGift Donor Family Advisory Committee, a support group for donor family members.
“The recipients get a lot of attention—and they should,” Walsh says, “but you can’t forget about the family on the other end of that transplant.”
In order to express her gratitude, Myers joined several organizations after her surgery. She volunteers and sometimes speaks about her experience at OHSU, Lions VisionGift, and organ donation nonprofit Donate Life Northwest. Myers also communicates online with individuals who have questions about her operation.
“Every morning when I’m brushing my hair and looking in the mirror with such clarity, I say a little prayer for my donors,” Myers says. “Because of them I can see color, keep my job, and ride my motorcycle. Because of them, I can live the life I want to live. If I ever meet my donors’s families, I’d simply want to say ‘thank you.’”