Eye Bank Network Stages Nationwide Fight Against Blindness
By Ron Cordray
A person in Ohama, Neb., suffers a serious accident that causes blindness.
Doctors determine that a rapid operation and corneal transplant could save the person’s sight. However, there are no eyes available in the local eye bank.
Not long ago a person under these circumstances faced prospects of living the rest of his life in darkness.
But today his chances of regaining precious sight are excellent. The Eye Bank Network has spanned the continent to make eyes available from dozens of other cities in such emergencies.
Until about a year ago, when the network began operations, it was virtually impossible for a hospital in one city to obtain eyes from an eye bank in another city.
In an emergency situation, a corneal transplant must be made within 24 hours to have any chance of success. The time and expense involved in one eye bank calling others around the United States made such attempts prohibitive if not impossible.
With the Eye Bank Network, communications between eye banks needing eyes and those that have surplus eyes can be started within minutes.
Robert V. Austin, local ham operator, is one of about 50 Eye Bank Network operators across the United States. Although he is relatively new to the network, starting about two months ago, he has already been instrumental in the transfer of a valuable pair of eyes from Ann Arbor to Omaha.
Austin, 305 Wilton, works closely with Mrs. Mary F. Hubbell, 426 S. Division, who is the executive secretary of the Michigan Eye Collection Center at University Hospital.
The Eye Bank Network is on the air twice daily, at 8 a.m. (EST) and 8 p.m. (EST). To operators on the west coast, this means rising at 5 a.m. daily to broadcast on the network.
Austin, interested in aiding the blind for many years as a Lions Club member, became aware of the Eye Bank Network through Dr. John W. Henderson, director of the Michigan Eye Collection Center at University Hospital and also a member of the Lions.
After taking early retirement from the Detroit Edison Co., Austin became the local Eye Bank Network operator. He has been a ham radio operator for 43 years, receiving his first license in 1921.
Austin said that since he has been a member of the network, he has passed on information on about a half-dozen eyes, including the emergency call from Omaha. He said there are currently about 168 eye banks covered by the network and that “it is growing by leaps and bounds.” There is a movement afoot, he said, to make the network international in scope.
“This is not just blabbing over the radio,” Austin said, “This gives us a sense of accomplishment.” He noted that other “traffic” (talk) is discouraged during the time the network is on the air. “This would defeat its purpose,” he said.
“This is one of the most efficient networks I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Work is completed within 10 to 15 minutes.” Austin said emergency requests are handled first on the network.
“Then the stations announce whether any surplus eyes are available, this information being pooled to the network control station. After this, an alphabetical roll call of stations is performed, starting with Ann Arbor,” Austin said.
The roll of network operator is rotated, one of the reasons being that operators in some states can not always get the signal from far-away operators. “We normally get about 95 per cent of the stations reporting in the mornings,” Austin noted. He said participation in the evening is not this good because of atmospheric conditions and other interference.
After the network has closed, the local Eye Bank Network operators report any need or surplus to the local eye bank. The center wanting eyes then calls the eye bank center that has surplus eyes, Austin said.
Mrs. Hubbell said that if the Michigan Eye Collection Center has any surplus eyes she immediately contacts Austin. However, she noted, there is seldom a surplus because the Michigan center services most of the state.
“When an emergency request for eyes comes in on the network, he (Austin) calls me. This is how we sent a pair of eyes to Omaha,” she said. The name of the person receiving the eyes is kept confidential. Mrs. Hubbell noted the University of Nebraska called her immediately after learning the center had surplus eyes.
Mrs. Hubbell then told the Omaha hospital the history of the eyes, the cause of death of the donor, the time of death and when the eyes were removed.
The eyes were then placed in a canister, taken to Willow Run Airport by the Red Cross, and were then placed in the care of the airplane’s pilot. Omaha was contacted of arrival of the flight and the pilot delivered the canister to hospital officials in Omaha.
“The Eye Bank Network will help out a great deal,” Mrs. Hubbell said. “It is amazing how fast the eyes were on their way to Omaha. We get cooperation from every one—the airlines companies, buses, the state police—everyone.”
Without the network, she said, “we would have no contact with the other eye banks. It’s going to be quite a wonderful means of getting eyes.” Mrs. Hubbell said both she and Austin “are very enthusiastic about it. It’s a wonderful experience and feeling to know that we’re helping to give sight to other people.” The Eye Bank Network is in operation every day except Sunday, Austin said. The station director not only checks with the 50 cities on the Eye Bank Network, but also checks with other networks to determine if there are any needs or surpluses.
“The speed and success of the operation is the ability to pool the knowledge of 50 sources,” Austin said. “It’s quite a job to get together, there are three stations on the West Coast that report regularly,” he said.
Austin said that there has not yet been an emergency request for Ann Arbor, but the network is ready to fill the emergency if it should arise.
The concept of an eye bank is relatively new, the first being founded in New York in 1945. To have better coordination between all eye banks, the Eye Bank Association of America was founded in 1961.
To further this goal of coordination, the Eye Bank Network was founded Dec. 20, 1962, by Dr. Alson E. Braley and Ted Hunter of Iowa City, Iowa.
In the first 12 months of operation 76 emergencies were filled and 62 surplus eyes were delivered.
RADIO WORKS FOR SIGHT: Robert V. Austin, 305 Wilton, tunes in on the Eye Bank Network, manned by about 50 ham radio operators in as many cities. The network aids in the rapid transfer of eyes from eye banks that have surpluses to hospitals in need of eyes for operations. The radio network makes it possible to transfer eyes from one city to
another within a matter of hours. Time is the most important factor in many eye operations, some having to be made within 24 hours to have a chance for success. Austin, an Eye Bank Network operator for about two months, has already been instrumental in transferring a pair of eyes from the Michigan Eye Collection Center at University Hospital to Omaha.
Amatuer Radio Operators
Michigan Eye Collection Center [Eye Bank]
Ann Arbor Lions Club
Detroit Edison Company
Ann Arbor News
Robert V. Austin
Mary F. Hubbell
Dr. John W. Henderson
Dr. Alson E. Braley
426 S Division