Saskatchewan’s commitment to improve provincial donation rates in the past year has led to a 150 per cent increase in cornea donations. This amounts to 125 donations in 2019-20, 75 more than in the previous year.
“There was a concerted effort by the donation program to increase the number of referrals of patients to the program,” said Lori Garchinski, executive director of Provincial Programs, Tertiary Care for the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA).
This rise in donations has resulted in more people receiving a vision restoring procedure. In 2019-20, there was a 27 per cent increase in the number of corneal transplants, from 52 to 66.
“This past year, we were able to perform 66 corneal transplants for Saskatchewan residents,” said Garchinski.
The cornea is the clear front surface of the eye. It lies directly in front of the iris and pupil, and it allows light to enter the eye, enabling us to see. Corneas may need replacing because of disease, degeneration, trauma, injury or infection.
A corneal transplant is a surgical procedure that uses corneal tissue from a recently deceased person to replace another person’s cornea. Cornea donation is necessary to preserve and restore sight to the eye. These transplants take place in Saskatoon and Regina.
The quality of life of patients waiting for a procedure varies, said Dr. Jeffrey Judelson, who has performed more than 750 corneal transplants. “Some patients have moderate visual loss but are still able to function although for others it’s a real struggle to manage with very poor vision, sensitivity to light, discomfort or pain.”
Tyler Senga waited about six months for his most recent cornea transplant, which he received July 19, 2020. It was his third cornea transplant, and the second on his right eye.
“I couldn’t see very well out of my right eye before. Now, it is just about as good as my left. It’s just like Christmas. It gets better and better all the time.”
Senga, who’s in his fifties, said he’s had to get by most of his life without seeing very well. He chose mechanics as a career because he could do most of his work by hand.
This most recent surgery is a game changer. “There is literally a light at the end of the tunnel. I can see letters across the room and colours are sharp. I expect my vision will be 20-40 once I recover. With glasses, I’ll have normal vision.”
Tyler Senga said since receiving his transplant “it’s like Christmas.”
Senga expressed gratitude to both Dr. Judelson, who he compares to “a mechanic’s mechanic,” and to the people who donated their corneas so that he can see.
“I’ve been looking through other people’s eyes for most of my life. It’s not lost on me what somebody gave up. It’s an incredible thing.”
Garchinski said the SHA does not yet have a provincial database to provide information on the number of people waiting for corneal transplants or the length of their waits.
She said the SHA’s goal is to have no one waiting for surgery. “Any time we’re dealing with someone’s sight, where their condition causes pain and affects their quality of life and productivity, we would aim for a wait list of zero.”
She said provinces Canada-wide are striving to ensure no one waits for a transplant. In this province, the Ministry of Health has provided funding over the past two years to enable the purchase of corneas from other jurisdictions when our own supply was too low.
The province’s efforts to increase corneal donations have been supported through its partnership with the Eye Bank of Saskatchewan and the Saskatchewan Lions Club. The Eye Bank of Saskatchewan is responsible for the recovery of donated eye tissue. SHA donor co-ordinators receive training on how to retrieve and preserve corneas for transplantation. The Eye Bank of Saskatchewan is affiliated with the Eye Bank of America Association.
In conjunction with the SHA and eHealth Saskatchewan, the provincial government is developing an organ and tissue donation registry which will allow Saskatchewan residents the ability to ensure that their wishes to donate corneas and\or organs are known. Until that time, “the best way to become a corneal or organ donor is to let your next of kin know your wishes,” said Garchinski.