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Doctor's dream of curing blindness leads to founding of world’s first eye bank, restoring sight to thousands.

Some miracles just happen; some like The Eye-Bank for Sight Restoration occur because people with a vision of how the world could be a better place make them happen. This pioneering agency which changed the lives of thousands and led the way for the whole field of transplantation, resulted from the brilliant partnership of an ophthalmologist with a dream and a dynamic woman with a genius for motivating people.

The dream was to create a system that would allow people to pledge their eyes at death so that others, suffering from corneal blindness, could regain their sight.

As early as 1905, doctors had discovered that corneal blindness could be cured by removing the damaged cornea — the clear, dime-sized tissue covering the eye — and replacing it with another clear human cornea. These transplants were rarely performed, however, because donor tissue was not readily available.

A young ophthalmologist, R. Townley Paton, M.D., was convinced that cornea transplantation was a viable cure that could provide thousands of patients with visual redemption.

Dr. Paton had trained with the famous Dr. William Holland Wilmer at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. He later established his own practice in New York City and became affiliated with Manhattan Eye, Ear & Throat Hospital.

There he began to perform cornea transplants with tissue he obtained privately. One source of tissue was prisoners on death row.

At the time, the death penalty was in practice, so Dr. Paton would make periodic visits to nearby Sing-Sing prison. With permission from proper authorities, he would obtain consent for donation from prisoners on death row and bring the donor tissue back to the hospital after a prisoner had been executed.

It may have been on one of these late night forays that Dr. Paton came to the brilliant conclusion that what was needed was a system for collecting eye donations, processing them and distributing them to doctors for transplant surgeries.

People could pledge their eyes in advance of their death, leaving a legacy of sight, just as they already made out their wills. He envisioned an eye bank.

Following several preliminary meetings, Dr. Paton and a small group of doctors and laymen from surrounding institutions formed an organization on December 15, 1944 in a small room at Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital and laid the groundwork for The Eye-Bank for Sight Restoration.

They designed a plan in which eyes could be systematically obtained, preserved and redistributed to doctors who were performing cornea transplant operations.

A working administrative program was set up, a technical plan evolved, lists for potential committees were drafted and files were started.

To help implement the plan, Dr. Paton wisely solicited the help of Mrs. Aida Breckinridge, a known powerhouse for motivating people.

Mrs. Breckinridge had worked tirelessIy to establish The Wilmer Institute which opened in 1929. And after that she led other causes including President Hoover's Child Health Association.

Well-connected to society, business leaders and political figures of the time, Mrs. Breckinridge could wield the influence needed to popularize a unique idea. Plus, the thought of an agency to restore sight appealed to her because she herself suffered from glaucoma and was nearly blind.

Mrs. Breckinridge went to work in a small room loaned by Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital. In a later report she disclosed that she furnished the room herself from thrift shops in the neighborhood and initially paid her secretary's salary out of her own pocket.

The eye bank was underway. But progress was not without its hurdles — some predictable, others unforeseen.

State regulators were put off from incorporating a bank that did not do financial transactions. With legal counsel, the problem was solved by inserting a hyphen into the phrase eye bank and adding further description, hence, The Eye-Bank for Sight Restoration, Inc., as it is called today.

There was no legal precedent for obtaining anatomical gifts. So laws had to be amended allowing any person to direct the manner in which his body should be disposed of after death.

Meanwhile, Dr. Paton and Mrs. Breckinridge worked their separate magic toward the same goal of providing this miraculous cure for blindness.

Hospitals, first in New York, then across the country, were brought on board to help provide donor tissue. Ophthalmologists from different parts of the country came for training in cornea transplant surgery. They would then return home ready to treat patients with the new procedure. Dr. Paton opened a clinic and treated patients for free on the first visit. He published his findings and procedures in medical journals and held symposiums for doctors to attend.

The American Red Cross was called upon to help in the quick transport of donor tissue first to The Eye-Bank for processing then back out to a doctor waiting to perform the sight-restoring transplant.

Since The Eye-Bank was the only central clearinghouse for tissue, support was sought from Eastern Airlines. Then headed by Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, Eastern agreed to fly donated tissue across the country to where it was needed.

Mrs. Breckinridge was a genius at publicity. After joining The Eye-Bank cause, she immediately set out to enlist support from influential people. The first Eye-Bank Council included such notables as Ethel Barrymore and Booth Tarkington; Thomas Watson, founder of IBM; Senator Harry F. Byrd and former President Hoover. Five former First Ladies joined —Mrs. Benjamin Harrison, Mrs. Thomas Preston (the former Mrs. Grover Cleveland), Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt and Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Mrs. Breckinridge had obtained The Eye-Bank's start-up funding, $25,000, from the Milbank Foundation and invited Albert Milbank to chair the Council.

A brochure describing this modern miracle of sight restoration was needed to educate the public. J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency contributed the first brochure for The Eye-Bank entitled "A Gift Like the Gifts of God."

It included true and wonderful stories of people regaining their eyesight through cornea transplantation after years of blindness and implored people to consider leaving their eyes after death. It also contained an eye-donor pledge card.

Mrs. Breckinridge recognized the power of the press. With Dr. Paton's help, she released information about The Eye-Bank's mission, the emotional stories of patients receiving the gift of sight and explained the cornea transplant procedure in laymen's terms.

The first article appeared in The New York Times Magazine in February, 1945. Another touching piece appeared in the Reader's Digest in November of 1945. Widely read in this country, as well as in translated editions around the world, the Reader's Digest article made a major impact in spreading the word about eye donation. For a year following its publication, the edition was carried in the pocket of every seat on Eastern Airlines.

These articles and hundreds of others in newspapers around the country, as well as commentary by radio personalities, generated a lot of interest for The Eye-Bank. People donated their eyes and others received the gift of sight.

By the end of the first year, 60 cornea transplants had been made possible, according to The Eye-Bank's first Annual Report. The initial network of 22 hospitals in the New York area had grown to include 56 others across the country.

Since it was founded, The Eye-Bank has supplied tissue for more than 44,000 sight saving cornea transplants. And up until 1997, The Eye-Bank continued to operate out of private offices at Manhattan Eye, Ear & Throat Hospital. But necessary expansion and modernization required a move.

In July, 1997 The Eye-Bank relocated to 120 Wall Street in New York City – a move which provided newly-designed administrative offices and a state-of-the-art cornea laboratory. Even during the relocation effort, The Eye-Bank maintained round-the-clock operations for processing sight-saving donor eye tissue.

Progress brought other changes along the way.

Within a relatively short time after it was founded, The Eye-Bank for Sight Restoration was decentralized. Corneal surgeons were located across the country and eye bank methodology for screening and preserving tissue was disseminated. Other eye banks were opened to handle tissue on a more local level.

In 1961, The Eye Bank Association of America was founded with 25 member eye banks. Today the membership exceeds a hundred and includes locations in Canada and Puerto Rico. Eye banks now exist throughout the world.

Now, more than 33,000 cornea transplants are performed each year in the United States. More than 1,100 transplants are performed annually in the New York area alone with tissue provided by The Eye-Bank.

While cornea transplant surgery was always highly successful, advanced medical technology has improved the success rate to approximately 95 percent. Since the cornea has no blood supply, it is seldom subject to the rejections that plague other organ transplants.

In the beginning, cornea transplant patients had to remain in the hospital for up to two weeks, their heads held still with sandbags to safeguard against rejection.

Now, surgical microscopes and improved instrumentation expedite the procedure for both the surgeon and the patient. Today, cornea transplants are often done on an out-patient basis.

Two things about eye banking do remain the same—the smile recipients have when their sight is restored and their gratitude to the generous donors who made it possible.

 

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