By SYLVIA RINEHART

Special to The Hays Daily News

In 2009, 272 Kansas cornea transplant recipients escaped a lifetime of blindness thanks to the generosity of their eye donors, trusted surgeons, partnering hospitals and the work of Heartland Lions Eye Banks.

Because of each donor's remarkable gift, sight was saved for those suffering from an ocular disease, disorder or injury.

Said Patricia, a cornea recipient, "I don't know what I would have done without my donors. Who knows how many more years I would have been able to function without surgery. Their gift means everything to me."

During National eye Donor Month this March, Heartland Lions Eye Banks, now in its 50th year of saving sight, encourages Kansas residents to join them as partners in donation by pledging to become eye, organ and tissue donors.

If you are older, have poor eyesight, or are afflicted with a non-communicable illness, eye donation can still be a viable option. In fact, 607 Kansas residents donated the gift of sight through Heartland Lions Eye Bank last year alone.

Kansas residents can pledge to be eye, organ and tissue donors in one of three ways. You can visit www.mwtn.org/sites/default/files/ksdonorregistry.pdf to download, print and complete the donor registration form.

A donor registration form can be picked up at the Hays Office of Heartland Lions Eye Banks at 1111 E. 30th, or call (785) 650-0661 and one will be mailed to you. One can also indicate your donation wishes when renewing or obtaining a Kansas driver's license.

Family consent is not required in the state of Kansas to carry out your decision to be an organ, eye or tissue donor. Therefore, your decision to donate means your family will not have to make the difficult decision regarding your final wishes.

However, keeping everyone informed will help avoid any confusion or delays.

Heartland Lions Eye Banks is now celebrating its 50th anniversary. It is a division of the Missouri Lions Eye Research Foundation, a nonprofit organization with the mission to preserve and restore the sight of people throughout Kansas, Illinois, Missouri and around the world.

Since its founding, this Lions Eye Bank has helped give the gift of sight to 33,000 people worldwide. It is one of the five largest eye banks in the United States.

The eye bank retrieves, processes and distributes the highest quality donor eye tissue to corneal surgeons. In addition, the Lions Eye Bank is committed to research for causes and cures for eye diseases. Heartland Lions Eye Bank services Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois areas with branches in Hays and Wichita; and in Missouri, Columbia, Springfield, St. Louis, Kansas City, Joplin and Springfield.

Each year, the eye banking community promotes the month of March as National Eye Donor Month in order to encourage eye donation in the communities that we serve.

The first National Eye Donor Month was observed in 1983 as a result of a proclamation read by President Ronald Reagan to note this special public awareness month. Since then, a member of Congress has continued the tradition and reads a proclamation into the Congressional Record each March.

There is a definite need for eye donation. More than 46,000 individuals received the "gift of sight" last year thanks to a corneal transplant.

These individuals suffered vision loss from a corneal disease or injury that compromises quality of life, making it difficult to accomplish everyday tasks such as reading or even recognizing faces at a distance.

Fortunately, through the medical miracle of corneal transplantation, sight restoration is possible. The transplantation process depends on the priceless gift of eye donation from one human to another. Thanks to the selfless and generous choice to pledge to become an eye donor after death, one' legacy of giving can live on in another's restored sight.

Sylvia Rinehart is hospital services coordinator for Heartland Lions Eye Bank.