Donor Family Stories

Real life account from a donor coordinator

In eye banking, a Donor Coordinator is the person responsible for checking to see whether recently expired patients are medically suitable for cornea donation and if they are, reaching out to the families to offer them that option. In the three years I was a donor coordinator for the Lions Medical Eye Bank and Research Center of Eastern Virginia, I saw people at their best far more than you might think. You never know what to expect when a grieving family member picks up that phone. Every approach is different but memorable in it’s own way.

For me, there was one call I will never forget. It started like almost every other. Only it was a young boy who had passed away at a local hospital. He was only six years old, and our eye bank was to take lead on the approach. The next of kin was the boy’s mother; I was to offer her the option of donating her child’s corneas for transplantation. Reaching her was not hard; she was home and picked up after only a few rings. I greeted her and when I explained why I called, she was a little stunned. I was used to people not expecting my call, but this was different. She was surprised because her son was blind and had been since the day he was born. She didn’t think he could be a candidate for donation, but she had some questions, and soon we started talking about donation in more general terms, the process, the surgery, etc.

Now, I come from a funeral home background and speaking to the bereaved is still very much a part of who I am. If I learned anything from that experience, it’s that what people really need is for someone to listen. So I did. The conversation covered a lot but soon we were discussing her son again: his medical problems, his blindness, and how it was something he had always lived with. “There was an injury to his brain,” she told me. “It couldn’t ‘see’ what his eyes were trying to tell him…”

As she said this and I realized his blindness was brain-related and the coordinator in me started to think of the most tactful way to let her know the nature of his blindness may still allow for donation. His corneas could be perfectly fine and should she want to, the opportunity may still be available. The thing is she beat me to it.

“Could he donate? If his eyes worked? Even if he couldn’t see?” I said nothing was certain and there would have to be a careful medical examination, but there was a potential that by this time next week, two people would be able to see again because of her son’s gift. There was a long pause before she asked whether she could have some time to think it over. I said that wouldn’t be a problem and gave her my number. We said goodbye with the understanding she would call back soon. I thanked her and returned to my work.

Less than an hour later we were back on the phone. She had a question: “Can you tell me who will get my son’s corneas?”

Privacy is a huge part of what we do. Protection of our recipients, the donors, and their families are all things we take very seriously. After a recipient receives a cornea, if they want to reach out to the family of the donor we’ll gladly facilitate that for them. The same is true for the donor. So while direct contact so early in the process was not an option, I told her I would get permission to find the age, gender, and state of residence of the recipients, but it wouldn’t be until after the transplantation took place. She thanked me and we began the consent process.

That evening her son donated both corneas.

Less than a week later they were transplanted.

A week and a half after we first spoke, I was able to call her back and tell her that her blind six-year-old son had restored sight to a 13-year-old girl in Virginia and a 15-day old child in Afghanistan.

Though our conversation was brief, the impact of her son’s gift was very clear. She thanked me again, and I wished her the best.

It’s nearly ten years later and I’m still proud to be part of the Lions Medical Eye Bank and Research Center of Eastern Virginia, though I am no longer a Donor Coordinator. Presently, I provide training to hospital staff and educate the community on the facts of cornea, tissue, and organ donation. After almost every presentation, whether it’s to an auditorium of students or a one-on-one during a tour of our facility, people come up to me and say, “I wish I could donate, but…” and they list why they don’t feel their corneas would be suitable for transplant.

It’s a natural thing to not want to pass your problems on to someone else. So I listen carefully and tell almost all of them the same thing: “Don’t rule yourself out. We only take donations we can use. You never know. Let me tell you a story about a six-year-old boy and his mom…”