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The Gift of Sight: What Is a Corneal Transplant?

What Is a Corneal Transplant?

The cornea is the outer layer of the eye that acts as a barrier against dirt and germs. Its curved edge refracts light, helping your eye focus. When someone has an injured or diseased cornea, it may need to be replaced. This can happen through a corneal transplant.

A corneal transplant replaces just the outer layer of the eye, rather than the whole eye. Sometimes, the remaining tissue is used for research or educational purposes. As of now, there is no man-made substitute for a real human cornea, so donated corneas are an essential part of the procedure.

For a successful transplant, the donor corneas must be recovered within a few hours of death. Most transplants occur within a week after recovery, according to the Eye Bank Association of America (EBAA).

The surgery itself only takes about an hour. It’s generally performed as an outpatient procedure and has a high success rate; more than 95 percent of corneal transplant operations restore the recipient’s vision.

Donating Eyes

Unless you have a highly communicable disease like HIV or hepatitis, you can be a cornea donor. You don’t have to have a certain blood type. People of all genders, ages, and races can donate. It also doesn’t matter what color your eyes are, or even how good your own eyesight is.

If you have a faith leader, you may want to talk to them for reassurance before registering to be an organ donor. However, organ donation — including donating eyes — is supported by the teaching of all the major religions, according to the EBAA. It’s also important to discuss your wishes with close family members.

How Do I Become a Donor?

If you’ve signed a donor card or registered online, or even marked “organ donor” on your driver’s license, you will be considered a donor when the time comes. Registered organ donors also agree to donate their tissue and corneas.

To become a cornea donor, you can register on the U.S. government’s national organ donor website or with the EBAA. You can also register as an organ, eye, and tissue donor by visiting UPMC.com/DonateLife.

Receiving a Corneal Transplant

Receiving a corneal transplant can mean receiving the gift of sight. In 2016 alone, nearly 83,000 men, women, and children in the United States had their sight restored after successful corneal transplant surgery. Some patients see great improvement in a few weeks. For others, their vision may take up to a year to improve. The donated tissue usually lasts a lifetime.

To register as an organ, eye, and tissue donor, visit UPMC.com/DonateLife. Organ donors have the potential to save up to eight lives and enhance the lives of 75 others, including giving the gift of sight.