SIOUX FALLS, SD -
A Sioux Falls eye and tissue bank is changing lives thanks to donations from families who've lost a loved one.
"They call it the gift of sight and that is the perfect name for it because it is the greatest gift I've ever received in my life,” cornea transplant recipient Tom Neiman said.
Brothers Mike and Tom Neiman can both see today after receiving cornea transplants. They, along with their mother, were diagnosed with a hereditary disease called Fuch's corneal dystrophy.
"You think about a windshield when you're driving when it's raining out or really foggy out, that's how my cornea became," Mike said.
The uncommon disease causes fluid to build-up in the eye, creating a blurred effect. The men were slowly becoming blind until receiving the transplants.
"Literally within 24 hours, I could see the difference. I could see clearly. The fog had been lifted that soon," Tom said.
"I noticed that my son had freckles on his nose. I'd never noticed that before and it was just an amazing thing to see clear enough to see freckles on my son's nose," Mike said.
The sight is credited to human donors who gave their corneas after they died.
Ryan Dott is the only person in South Dakota harvesting donated corneas. And at the South Dakota Lions Eye and Tissue Bank, transplant surgeon Michael Eide oversees Dott remove the corneas for the first time.
Eide performs an average of one to two cornea transplants a week from the eye and tissue bank for patients who have lost their sight from hereditary diseases, infections or injuries.
"These people are often at their ropes end with no option to see. Sometimes it's both eyes that have this problem. Literally they're losing vision by the month and the year," Eide said.
About 550 corneas are donated to the bank each year, making the waiting list nearly non-existent.
Executive Director Jens Saakvitne says almost half are sent overseas to as far off as Korea and Saudi Arabia to give sight to international patients.
"We're very fortunate with corneas that we are just meeting the needs. You can almost always schedule a surgery and there will be a cornea available," Saakvitne said.
But just because the needs are currently being met doesn't mean the Bank isn't looking for more. Eyes that don't qualify for transplants are used for research. Eide and Dott look for new ways to improve vision and decrease recovery time of transplant patients.
"Until the day we have a perfect prosthetic implant that works for everybody, we are reliant on people to donate and if people don't donate, I can't do the transplant and people can't see," Eide said. "We are very appreciative and very reliant on our donors."
And that gift of sight means everything for the Neiman family plagued with hereditary eye disease.
"It's been such a blessing to us," Tom said. "I mean, my mother, my brother and possibly my other brother and sister down the line, what they do here at the eye bank is incredible.”
Are you interested in becoming a donor, here's all the information you need to know.
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