By Donating Eyes, Sri Lankans Give Sight to People Worldwide
Global Press Journal by Kumala Wijeratne Tuesday 18th October, 2016
COLOMBO, SRI LANKA – Amila Nilanga battled for a decade with corneal blindness in his right eye. But now, at 28 years old, his vision is fully restored, thanks to a cornea transplant.
Nilanga waited on the transplant list for about three months before his surgery, but that wasn’t for a lack of a cornea. Due to a high rate of donations, Sri Lankans rarely have to wait for a cornea. In fact, the country exports all excess corneas and is a leading supplier of corneas to the world.
Instead, Nilanga, an electrical engineer, waited for his surgeon’s schedule at the state-run National Eye Hospital of Sri Lanka in Colombo to clear.
“It’s only a tissue, but I feel grateful to the donor,” he says. “This is a pious deed indeed. What can one do without sight?”
Sri Lanka, one of the world’s leading providers of corneas, has donated excess corneas to foreign patients for decades. The Buddhist practice of giving alms, especially donating a part of yourself to another, motivates many Sri Lankans to register to donate their eyes after they die. More than 1 million Sri Lankans are currently registered as eye donors.
The culture of eye donation in this island nation was pioneered by Dr. Hudson Silva, when, as a medical student in 1958, he wrote a newspaper article in which he called on Sri Lankans to donate their eyes.
Kaushalya Fernando shows a certificate noting that she has registered to donate an eye. Fernando is among 1.3 million Sri Lankans registered with the Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society.
Kumala Wijeratne, GPJ Sri Lanka
Kaushalya Fernando is registered as a donor with the Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society.
“I was always keen in donating my eyes and my body to the medical faculty for the advancement of medical science,” says Fernando, 34.
She signed up to be a donor in June 2012, and she is registered to donate skin and other tissue as well.
She says her Buddhist faith prompted her to do so.
Fernando even corrected a squint in her eye, undergoing surgery in February, to ensure that upon death, she would donate a good pair of eyes, she says.
“When we offer alms, it has to be of good quality,” she says.
In addition to the registered donors, the Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society and the National Eye Bank work through the hospitals and doctors to encourage families to donate the eyes of a family member.
“The hospitals inform us when a death occurs, and we send a representative to meet with the family to obtain their permission and evaluate the eyes,” says Janath Matara Arachchi, senior manager of the International Eye Bank.
Janath Matara Arachchi, of the Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society, holds a package of corneas, ready for export. Since 1961, the society has provided 47,850 corneas to Sri Lankans and 73,085 corneas to people in 57 other countries.
Kumala Wijeratne, GPJ Sri Lanka
Since a cornea has to be transplanted within 14 days of its removal, the process moves quickly. The cornea is evaluated for quality, and tests are conducted to ensure that it’s not infected.
“The preparation and preservation of corneas is done within four hours, as in Sri Lanka, being a tropical country, decay sets in very fast,” Matara Arachchi says.
Removing and storing corneas is not a cheap process, says Fazna Ajward, a deputy manager at the National Eye Bank.
From procurement to preservation and transplant, the cost is around 35,000 rupees ($240) per cornea, she says. This cost is currently borne by the Singapore government.
The Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society, as a charity, depends completely on donations. It receives an average of about 450 corneas each month through next-of-kin donations and registered donors.
Kanchana Sandamali Adikari donated her husband’s eyes in 2015 after he died of pneumonia and a representative of the Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society contacted her.
“I gave permission for the removal of eyes, as it was an act of merit,” Adikari, 31, says.
Since then, she and her sister, Nimali Adikari, have registered as donors with the society.
“At first, we felt that since both of us have weak eyes and wear spectacles, we would be rejected,” Nimali Adikari, 33, says. “But then we came to understand that it’s the cornea that’s vital.”
The Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society has big plans for solving eye problems globally. Eliminating blindness is one, says Matara Arachchi, the International Eye Bank manager.
Meanwhile, the National Eye Bank is developing uses for donated eyes that don’t meet transplant standards.
“We are in the process of developing a corneal research laboratory, so that corneas that are not considered to be of high standard could be used for research,” says Ajward, the National Eye Bank deputy manager.
Kumala Wijeratne, GPJ, translated four interviews from Sinhala.