|History of the
Heartland Lions Eye Bank
Kansas Lions can be proud that they are part of one of the 5 largest eye bank systems in the
USA (and probably the world). A large eye bank is important, because large eye banks can
help many more people than small ones. Large eye banks have sufficient donor corneas on-
hand to allow Kansans to receive a corneal transplant by appointment – when it is convenient to
them and their surgeon, rather than being on a waiting list as some still are.
Eye banking in Kansas actually started out as an operation performed by the Odd Fellows, while
separate eye bank programs were run by the Missouri and Illinois Lions in their respective
states. In the mid-1990’s, the Odd Fellows eye bank activity waned, and in 1997, they invited
several eye bank entities to make bids to take over their operation. Although, Lions in Missouri
and Kansas had discussed the Odd Fellows eye bank deteriorating performance for several
years, it was a surprise to Lions in both states when the call for bids went out. Both groups
wanted to put eye banking in Kansas under the Lions banner, but the Kansas Lions were fully
committed with their existing programs.
The Missouri Lions had operated a successful eye bank program throughout most of Missouri
since 1960. It would be relatively easy for them to set up additional eye bank laboratories in
Kansas, if they had help from the Kansas Lions to drive the precious eye tissue from the site of
donation to an eye bank laboratory for further processing. The Lions of Kansas and Missouri
decided to make a collaborative bid: the Missouri Lions Eye Bank would take financial and
medical/legal responsibility for operating eye bank laboratories in Kansas City and Hays; and the
Kansas Lions promised to actively promote eye donation and recruit volunteers to transport eye
tissue. The Lions won the bid, and immediately began to rejuvenate the eye donor program in
At almost the same time, an analogous consolidation took place between the Missouri and Illinois
Lions in Springfield, IL. With one Lions eye bank now operating in the three states, a more
“regional” name was needed – and “Heartland” was deemed to be the most appropriate.
The collaboration between the three Lions groups had an immediate positive effect. In FY
1996/97, 119 Kansans received corneas from either the Missouri Lions Eye Bank (109) or the
Odd Fellows Eye Bank (10). Intensive hospital education by the combined Lions eye bank
allowed 184 Kansas to receive the gift of sight the next year: a 55% increase!
The additional number of donor eyes allowed surgeons in the Heartland Lions Eye Bank (HLEB)
region to start offering scheduled surgeries to their patients; instead of being on a waiting list
and then doing surgery on an “emergency” basis. This made the corneal transplants not only
more convenient for all involved, but the planned surgeries had better outcomes.
The FDA started regulating eye and tissue banking in 1998. One of things they called for was a
very intensive training and skills-maintenance program for anyone recovering eye tissue. The
documentation necessary to maintain hundreds of volunteer certified embalmers, each doing
occasional enucleations (eye removals) was prohibitive. Reluctantly, the HLEB starting sending
eye bank technicians out to recover corneas, which eliminated the need to have Lions transport
tissue. Sadly, one of the Lions members’ favorite aspects of eye banking had been eliminated!
Kansas Lions are still an important factor in the success of the Heartland Lions Eye Bank’s
mission. A strong Lions presence in virtually every Kansas city with a hospital is a constant
reminder to hospital management and staff of the importance of their eye donor program. Many
Kansas Lions help with donor registration drives; health, county, and state fair booths to provide
education about donation; and participate in local hospital award ceremonies.
The collaboration among Lions has caused the program to grow steadily. Last year, the HLEB
provided corneas for transplant to 299 Kansans. Kansas is in HLEB’s “first priority” region,
Kansas, Missouri, and part of Illinois. When folks in the “Heartland” area have the corneal tissue
they need, HLEB then calls other eye banks to offer any available donor corneas. In total, HLEB
provided corneas to restore vision to 2,921 people last year; an average of almost 8 transplants