NHS Organ Donation doesn’t have enough donated corneas to meet demand

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Becoming an organ donor is a personal choice and for me, it’s a no-brainer – it’s not like I’d still need my liver, my kidneys or my heart, is it?

So quite some time ago I decided to register to be one, long before the opt-out system was introduced.

But here's the thing: Although I’m all for donating my organs to someone in need when I die, I can't bring myself to sign away my eyes – or more specifically my corneas.

I'm 32, living with my partner in Essex. I'm a proper grown-up! But the thought of doing this leaves me quivering with fear at the thought.

According to NHS Organ Donation, it doesn’t currently have enough donated corneas to meet demand in the UK and I think I should be a prime candidate to help out.

I mean I don’t wear glasses, I have no problems with my sight, in fact I have 20-20 vision. Yet despite all that, they can't have my eyes.

It may seem like a waste of a good pair of eyes but I just couldn’t bring myself to tick that box on the donations form.

Why? I’m not 100 per cent sure if I’m being totally honest, but with a bit of research, I've realised I'm not alone in feeling scared.

Corneas are an option when signing up for organ donation
(Image: Getty – Jonathan Storey)

I recently stumbled on this story in The Guardian. It's from a few years ago now but in it, Helen Gillan, tissue manager of NHS Blood and Transplant, admitted that eyes are “the one tissue that people seem to have a reluctance to donate."

“We’ve called it ‘the yuck factor’,” she added. “Because eyes are on the outside of the body, I think people are a bit more attached to them.”

And now looking into what our corneas are actually used for and reading that they ‘could be invaluable for saving someone’s sight’ and that a single transplant can improve the sight of up to 10 people, I’ve got to admit I do feel a pinch of regret – but I just can’t do it.

I have no idea what goes into removing a cornea, I don’t even know which part of the eye it is, not without a quick Google. But in my head, I have visions of someone gauging my eyes out.

I think maybe I’ve watched one too many horror films.

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I know I wouldn’t feel it, I’d be dead, but it weirds me out even thinking about it. It’s a no from me.

Another reason is probably a bit airy-fairy for some people, but I’m really into mediums and psychics and have seen quite a few in my time, and although I have no religious persuasion, I’d like to think there is some kind of afterlife, whatever that may be.

So if I didn’t have my eyes, how would I see where I was going?

I know this sounds pretty ridiculous, but the thought of not being able to see really scares me, whether in this life or the next. But as I write this, I’m aware of how selfish that makes me feel considering what my corneas could do for someone facing that very prospect.

However, while I’m not quite ready to immediately update my preferences, what I can say is that finding out definitely that these eyes of mind could be valuable in saving someone's life has given me some food for thought.

Here are some other things I found out which may help me make change my mind and which could possibly help you too if you're feeling squeamish just like me.

What to do if you want to donate your eyes

According to NHS Organ Donation , the first thing you should do is tell your friends and family that you want to be a cornea donor – it is very important that they understand and support your organ and tissue donation decision because your family’s support is needed for donation to go ahead.

Dealing with the death of a loved one is a difficult time to make an important decision quickly.

Sign up to the Organ Donor Register online. The NHS Organ Donor Register is a secure database that records people’s decision around whether or not they want to be an organ and tissue donor when they die.

Call Organ Donation NHS on 0300 123 23 23.

If you would like to refer a potential cornea donor, call the Tissues National Referral Centre on 0800 432 0559.

Can I donate my corneas?

Yes – because almost anybody can.

The cornea is the clear tissue at the front of your eye that lets in light so you can see.

This small and simple part of the eye is hugely important for thousands of cornea transplants a year, often saving the sight of patients for many years.

What's eye donation then?

Eye donation involves donating your corneas – not your iris.

Sometimes called a keratoplasty, or a corneal graft, a cornea transplant could give someone back the gift of sight.

When you register as an organ donor, you can choose to be a tissue donor too.

Why do people need a corneal transplant?

People can need cornea transplants for quite a number of reasons including:

  • disease or injury that has made the cornea cloudy or distorted, causing vision loss
  • scarring of the cornea after infections such as corneal ulcer
  • Keratoconus (thinning of the cornea that causes a cone-like bulge to develop, usually in young people)
  • age or inherited conditions that may lead to cloudiness of the cornea in older people
  • scarring caused by herpes, the cold sore virus.

If you would like to register to donate you can do that by clicking here.