On this day... April 1972

Post date: 
Tuesday, 11 April 2017

A century of NB - RNIB’s flagship publication, NB Online, is this year being recognised for reaching 100 years in circulation. Each month throughout the year, we look in the archives to find out what issues blind and partially sighted people have faced since the magazine started in 1917. 

In 1962, RNIB established the National Eye Donor Scheme, which sought to encourage people to donate their eyes after death for corneal grafting and other therapeutic purposes. Ten years later, in April 1972, New Beacon featured an article about how cornea material was being flown abroad for operations with Commonwealth nationals. Dive into the archive to find out more.  

Certain types of blindness can be cured only by replacing damaged tissue in the patient’s eyes with fresh tissue obtained from a dead person, observes the January/February report of the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind in an article entitled ‘Operation Cornea’. The Society’s new headquarters in Haywards Heath, Sussex, is located close to the eye bank housed in the Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, and arrangements have been made for the despatch of corneal material from the eye bank to ophthalmic surgeons in overseas countries of the Commonwealth.

It is essential, the report emphasises, that this corneal material should be fresh on arrival overseas. ‘Fresh’ for the operating purposes means that at the very most the material should not be more than 48 hours old on receipt. In order to be able to conform to this requirement when supplying material to a hospital in a remote district overseas, it is necessary to lay on what amounts to a military operation.

The method currently used is that the overseas surgeon notifies the Society when fresh corneal material is needed. The Society contacts the eye bank and arrangements are made for the material in its insulated container to be picked up by a member of a team of voluntary drivers recruited locally. The material is delivered either to Gatwick Airport or to Heathrow, passed by hand through the customs and export authorities and placed on the plane as special freight. In either case, says the report, it must be handled with the utmost despatch, and split-second timing is essential. The surgeon, of course, has been notified of its despatch, and quite often the patient is already on the operating table while the material is being brought from the final airport.

The Society is currently meeting regular requests for corneal material from India, Nigeria, Tanzania, Malawi, Kenya and Sierra Leone.

The report tells the story of the passage of material recently despatched to the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre in Tanzania. The material was collected from the Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, late in the afternoon of Tuesday 4 January and was taken by car to Heathrow, whence it was flown to Nairobi, arriving early the next morning. Quite by chance, an eye surgeon who had been working for the Society in Nigeria and who had that morning arrived in Nairobi by air heard of the arrival of the material on the air traffic intercom. Knowing the urgency, he personally recovered the material and drove with it through the night to deliver it to the Society’s consultant surgeon, who operated with it on the following morning. One of his patients was a young African woman from Tanga whose eyes were in a very critical state because the cornea had become very thin and ready to burst. The operation was successful. The second operation was on a young girl who had been trying to obtain treatment for four years. She had been seen by the surgeon quite by chance on one of his safaris. Her operation too was successful.

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