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Miracles in Sight, Bringing Light to the World for Thousands



By Bryan Dooley

“It was taking me out of the darkness and putting me into the marvelous light. I did not realize I had so many freckles on my face until my transplant!”~ Unknown

corneal transplant

corneal transplant

In 1905, Eduard Zirm performed the first successful full thickness cornea transplant. Over 100 years and many innovations later, a local company called Miracles in Sight, averages 3,500 transplants each year.

Miracles in Sight is the second largest eye bank in the United States and helps train future eye specialists, locally, nationally and internationally. It is open 7 days a week, and 24 hours a day. The organization strives to help the third of the population who experience corneal blindness.

“We are a multifaceted vision charity,” said President and CEO, Dean Vavra. “That’s why we changed our name from North Carolina Eye Bank to Miracles in Sight, because that’s what we do. We give financial support to the Industries for the Blind, which employs people with vision disabilities. We pay for the education of cornea fellows, one at Duke, one at Wake and another in New Delhi. We do eye bank development and have a sister organization in New Delhi. We provide vision care for indigent people. We train eye bankers and build training labs. Eye banking is only one of our core functions.”

Eye banking refers to recovering, processing and distributing ocular tissue for the restoration of sight through corneal transplantation and related medical therapy and research.

When individuals who have signed up to be a donor pass away, a representative of the eye bank will contact the family and initiate the tissue recovery process.

“What we are doing is twofold; we are honoring the wishes of the family who are generously giving this gift of corneal tissue for transplant and the second part is to get the best possible outcome for our patients,” said Director of Donor Logistics, Ingrid Schunder. “Because the cornea has no blood supply, there is no typing needed for transplantation. The cornea loses viability the longer it takes for us to recover the tissue. The more time that passes between the death of the donor and the preservation of the cornea in the media is what causes the cornea to lose viability. No two cases are alike.”
The Eye Bank Association of America (EBAA), began here in 1951 after L. Byerly Holt, MD, led a group of visionaries to lobby the NC legislature to pass General Statute 90-216. The generosity of Piedmont Airlines, who transported the tissue without cost, made it possible for this local company to become a leader in the field.

In 1982, the Winston Salem Host Lions Club donated several elaborate microscopes, which allowed tissue to be processed and stored in its lab and in 1984, the Kate B. Reynolds Health Care Trust awarded them a grant, allowing the eye bank to establish four satellite recovery offices. Currently, satellite recovery offices are operating in Winston Salem, Durham, Fayetteville and Greenville.

2007 brought the passing of “The Heart Prevails” legislation, meaning that an individual can choose to have a heart placed on their driver’s license or other identification cards, signifying that they wish to donate their organs and/or eye tissue. This greatly increased the number of available donations.

Miracles in Sight continues to celebrate their role in the history of eye banking. The organization recently founded a museum in their Winston facility, which is open to the public. It features a time-line of eye banking events and important people, as well as equipment previously used in eye banking. They also have information from other countries like India, where they are making a large impact.

Most recently, Miracles in Sight celebrated one of its best doctors and current board member, Dr. W. Craig Fowler, who received the 2014 Paton Award, a lifetime achievement award, recognizing his contributions to eye banking.

Although Miracles in Sight celebrates its history, the work continues. They continue to train cornea fellows, experiment with replicating tissue and making artificial tissue, and look for cures for blindness, among other things.

corneal transplant

corneal transplant

The staff at the eye bank stressed the importance of having a frank conversation early with your friends and family. In a situation when some members of a family do not agree, the practice is to honor the majority’s decision.

Some readers might be squeamish about organ donation, but Nick Grancharoff, donor center coordinator and trainer, discusses how the practice can be comforting to a family in time of great sorrow.

“It’s an opportunity to give a family hope, at the worst possible time in their life,” said Grancharoff. “ I’ve had many cases where families have actually thanked me for calling, because it is such a positive thing. The restoration of eyesight is a beautiful gift.”

What makes a good donor? Altruism and being willing to give after your death, having no communicable disease, having healthy tissue, and making your wishes known. It is important not to rule yourself out. Let the medical professionals decide. Tissue donation is free and does not affect your funeral arrangements.
The wife of a donor shares this thought.

“I am so grateful to Miracles in Sight for giving me the opportunity to share the sparkle in his eyes with someone else,” she said in a testimony on the website. “ I love the thought that someone is seeing the sunset or a rainbow that Arthur so loved, through his eyes. It is a blessing to me to know that a part of him lives on.”

If you are interested in becoming a donor please make your wishes known by both informing your family of your wishes and choosing the donation option on your NC driver’s license or identification card. You may also donate HERE.






Bryan Dooley is a graduate of Guilford College, where while earning a degree in History, he wrote for the The Guilfordian as a Staff Writer from 2011 to 2013, a Senior Writer from 2012 to 2013, and worked as a Diversity Coordinator. He now is a journalist and columnist with CCD. Bryan, who himself has cerebral palsy, is also an advocate for people with disabilities.

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