Cultivating an Entirely Different Class of Donor: Georgia Eye Bank, Inc.Marc Schultz | July 2014
With 30 full-time staff, a cutting-edge health care facility, and a service population of thousands, including stakeholders in acute need and high distress, CEO Eric Meinecke is taking time out of his busy day to work one-on-one with a donor he won't ever get a chance to meet—but one whose donation will make a world of difference in the life of a fellow Georgian.
Eric Meinecke can’t talk today. The president and CEO of Atlanta-based Georgia Eye Bank apologizes and explains, in a brief phone call, that he is unexpectedly busy attending to a donor.
The donor he had to make time for, however, was neither a major financial backer nor a long-time repeat giver—Meinecke hadn't even met this donor, and won't get a chance to. This donor falls into an entirely different class, and Meinecke's attention was on fulfilling a very important wish. He was recovering eye tissue from a recently deceased Georgian—an eye donor—who chose to donate in order to provide two complete strangers the precious Gift of Sight.
“That was pretty rare,” Meinecke says, several days later, of the procedure that forced him to postpone his interview for this story. “That was the first recovery I’ve done in quite some time. Its important to me to maintain my skills and training, and that day it came in handy because we had several recoveries going on.”
Meinecke started out his career as a Recovery Technician with the eye bank in Colorado nearly 14 years ago. In 2011, he joined the professionals at Georgia Eye Bank and just recently was promoted to CEO following the retirement of Bruce H. Varnum. “I always enjoyed and admired working for managers who knew how to do my job, who were willing and able to jump in the trenches, so to speak,” he says. Meinecke is proud to be that kind of leader for his full-time staff of 30, and additional 20 on-call Recovery Technicians operating throughout the state.
There are a variety of reasons why people might need a cornea transplant, ranging from diseases to trauma, and the procedure has an astounding success rate. Transplant recipients and their surgeons, as well as donors and their families, count on Georgia Eye Bank to make sure the process is smooth, safe, and done according to the highest standards. The response of all those constituents—as well as foundations, fellow nonprofits, and state representatives—proves that they are fulfilling that role with skill and grace.
A Unique Georgia-Wide Service
Georgia Eye Bank (GEB) was founded in 1961 and was for a time part of both Grady Hospital and Emory University Hospital before it became an independent community-based organization in 1992.
“Eye banking has really evolved since the first cornea transplant in 1905. Advances in surgical technique, instrumentation and increased donor tissue supply have all lead to the very efficient eye banking system we have today,” says Meinecke. In the early years of GEB, they provided 10-15 corneas for transplantation per month. Now it is common for the eye bank to provide over 40 sight restoring tissues per week.
“When someone dies in the state of Georgia, our organization is able to access a registry to see if that person is a donor,” he says. The registry he’s referring to is the one you sign up for when you receive or renew your driver’s license: the Donate Life Georgia Organ, Eye and Tissue Donor Registry. Virtually anyone can donate their corneas to virtually anyone else, Meinecke explains, because no blood reaches the cornea; that means no blood or tissue typing is necessary, and graft failure and rejection is not common.
Caring for Donors’ Families
The first thing GEB does after checking the registry is to call the family: “Even if they’re on that registry, the family is still very much a part of the process,” says Meinecke. “While we don’t need the family’s authorization to recover the eye tissue, it’s extremely important that the family be part of the process and assist us in honoring their loved one’s wishes. If the person is not listed, we do seek the family’s authorization. Our job in this situation is to make sure families have all the information they need to make the best decision for them.”
Often, Meinecke reports, families are grateful to learn that a recently deceased loved one signed up on the donor registry: “There are so many decisions and plans to make when a loved one passes. When we get to inform them that their loved one already made this important decision, you can feel the sense of relief.” Those who authorize the donation on behalf of the deceased’s wishes are also comforted, Meinecke says, by being able to honor their loved one’s values, memory, and life, through the healing power of transplantation.
"There are so many decisions...to make when a loved one passes. When we get to inform them that their loved one already made this important cecision, you can feel the sense of relief."
“People come from all over the country—family, friends—and its grown each year. Its been a really special way to honor their beloved Ernie, increased awareness of the Eye Bank’s mission, and raised significant funds,” says Meinecke. “We don’t expect anything from donor families—there is no cost to donor families. Financial donations are very important to our success though. The Franchell family’s generosity is extraordinary and we are profoundly appreciative.
Partnering for Greater Visibility
Georgia Eye Bank is also part of several partnerships that advocate for and educate the public about vision, including the Georgia Vision Collaborative, made up of organizations concerned with vision and sponsored by the Georgia Department of Public Health, and the Drive for Sight program, a coalition of eye health organizations that, Meinecke notes, you can choose to support with an extra dollar when you receive or renew your driver’s license. The eye bank also is an active member of Donate Life Georgia, whose mission is to raise awareness for all types of donation, not just eyes.
Georgia Eye Bank helped bring to life a study commissioned by the Eye Bank Association of America, the accrediting body that oversees eye banking and certifies technicians, on the economic value of cornea transplants: “Everyone knows eyesight is an amazing gift to give someone, but we wanted to know what, exactly, we were giving back to the community. In this age of cuts and ballooning expenses, what can we tell the legislators, and the public, about the benefit of eye banking?”
The analysis, by The Lewin Group, a widely-respected health care consulting firm, confirmed that corneal transplantation is a huge bargain. The costs of blindness are staggering, both in the cost of care and in lost productivity. Restoring someone’s sight also restores them to full productive capacity, making them a net positive for the economy—a benefit conservatively estimated at more than $200 million statewide in 2013 alone.
"Patients used to be on a waiting list, and could wait months, years before receiving a transplant." An increase in supply, thanks to the work of Eye Banks...has changed that.
"That information—what’s the cost of blindness, and what are we returning to society when we provide the Gift of Sight—has been a very powerful message,” says Meinecke. “It has helped raise money from foundations, its helped us put the message in front of people who didn’t even know they could donate their eyes.”
Another part of their outreach efforts include engaging elected officials. Governor Deal declared March Eye Donor Month, an annual event that the EBAA encourages its member banks (nearly 80 in the U.S.) to push for in their states. A month later, U.S. Rep. Tom Price, an orthopedic surgeon before he entered politics, visited GEB to learn more about eye banking and the incredible strides the profession has made.
“Patients used to be on a waiting list, and could wait months, years before receiving a transplant,” says Meinecke. An increase in supply, thanks to the work of Eye Banks, combined with the proliferation of training in the surgery, has changed that. “Now it’s scheduled surgery. A surgeon says, ‘I’m doing a transplant Tuesday at 10AM,’ and we have the tissue ready for them. It’s definitely not easy but I am extremely proud of the women and men at Georgia Eye Bank. Their passion and dedication is what makes it all possible.
A Bright Future
The Georgia Eye Bank is experiencing a new period of growth. In addition to its growing cadre of Laboratory Technicians—two more were certified in April—the organization is renovating part of their lab and installing cleanrooms, replacing laminar airflow hoods (the see-through boxes scientists work in by sticking their hands through an opening in the front) with a sterile workspace many times cleaner than a standard operating room. “That will enable us to process tissue more efficiently,” says Meinecke, as well as take advantage of the latest technology and techniques, including an operating microscope—an impossibility with the old system. “That’s thanks to some funding from some generous foundations and individuals, who have been very supportive of our mission. Cleanrooms will allow us to remain on the cutting-edge of corneal transplant tissue preparation.”
The mission, honoring the wishes of donors and their families, manifests in powerful benefits for recipients and society—but it only works, Meinecke notes, when people choose to become a donor, and communicate that choice to their loved ones. “The first thing many people say to me when they learn what I do is, ‘Oh, you wouldn’t want my eyes.’ I have bad vision. I have diabetes or cancer. I hear all the reasons people think they would not be a suitable donor,” says Meinecke. “They’re always surprised when we tell them bad vision, diabetes and even cancer do not preclude eye donation. There are really very few conditions or diseases that impede eye donation. It’s important for people to not presume they wouldn’t be a good donor. We tell everyone, let the eye bank determine whether they would be a suitable donor. Even if transplantation is not possible, we also recover and provide badly needed ocular tissue for important vision-related research.”
Meinecke is quick to stress that it’s okay not to donate, as well: “If you don’t want to be a donor, that’s fine too! Ours is an opt-in system here in Georgia, and we never pressure families to donate.” Instead, they make sure families have all the information they need to decide. Either way, Meinecke urges everyone to make sure your loved ones know your wishes regarding organ, eye and tissue donation. “There’s a lot that happens right at the time of death,” said Meinecke. “Your family will always appreciate the decisions you’ve made for them in advance.”
Marc Schultz is writer/editor at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits and managing editor of Georgia Nonprofit NOW.