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 Rogers Park Golf Course and the Hillborough River from above. - Julie Branaman
Rogers Park Golf Course and the Hillborough River from above. - Julie Branaman | Show Photo

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Lion's Eye Institute Sees End To Blindness, Tampa

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Born 21 years ago with glaucoma, cataracts and an unusual eye disorder called Peters Anomaly, Samantha Barlow struggled to see as a young child. Doctors did what they could to help, but told her parents that her sight might never improve. A cornea transplant wasn't an option for her then.

Soon Barlow started elementary school and from day one, struggled to keep up. As she got older, cursive writing was a particular challenge; completing assignments in the same timeframe as her classmates was nearly impossible.

"I couldn’t see individual leaves on trees,'' she says. "Grass looked like carpet.''

That's the background to an amazing story Barlow tells today about how she eventually was able to undergo not one, but two cornea transplants, finish high school and complete college coursework that is expected to lead to a degree in paralegal studies from Hillsborough Community College next fall.  And, come October, she's planning to get married.

While she still can't see well enough to drive a car, she can see well enough to do just about anything that any sighted person can do.

"Now I can see leaves; I can see blades of grass,'' she says.

Her life's journey, she readily suggests, is a testament to the value of ongoing research and development taking place every day at the Lions Eye Institute for Transplant and Research in Tampa.

Ten years after receiving her cornea transplants, Barlow visits the Lions Eye Institute often to express her gratitude.

"We’re giving someone the opportunities that we all have,'' says Jason Woody, Institute president and CEO.

"The knights of the blind on a crusade against blindness,'' as they call themselves, the researchers and administrators of the Lions Eye Institute are on a mission to "cure blindness and blinding eye diseases in order to improve the quality of life for all.''

Cornea Transplants

Established in 1973 by the Lions Club, the Lions Eye Institute was founded in a response to the need for an eye bank in Central Florida. At the time, the nearest eye bank was in Miami, and limited resources meant potential patients waited two or three years for a transplant.

In the organization’s first few years, 15 to 20 transplants were performed. Now, the Lions Eye Institute provides corneas for transplant to people in 62 of Florida's 67 counties and facilitates more than 3,000 transplants per year.

"We provide corneas to anyone in Florida who needs them,'' Woody says. "There is no favoritism.''

Corneas are removed from donors, and then transported to a surgery center near the recipient.

A total of 55,000 transplants have been performed with the Lions Eye Institute's help, making Woody, who has been with the organization for 22 years, both proud and able to envision a future in which blindness is eradicated.

Looking For A Cure

Each year about 3,000 sets of corneas are donated for transplant at the Lions Eye Institute. Another 3,000 are donated solely for research or become part of research after doctors find them ineligible for transplant.

The Lions Eye Institute's research is unusual in that few similar facilities have the resources to allow researchers to work with human samples. The majority of eye research across the globe is done on animal eyes because human samples are more difficult to obtain.

"In finding a cure for eye disease, we realize there is a loved one that made a decision behind the donation to help somebody else,'' Woody says. Donor families are often supportive of research and are hopeful that their loved ones’ tissue will help to cure glaucoma and other blinding eye diseases.

Indeed, Barlow's dad died when she was 4, and her mom donated his corneas then -- long before Barlow became eligible for cornea transplants.

Though some eye tissue is shipped to researchers at other institutions, a great deal of it is done in Ybor City. When Woody joined the organization, it was housed in a 2,000-square-foot facility on Westshore Boulevard. Now, the Lions Eye Institute calls the former Lozano and Sons Cigar Factory home -- a major expansion and upgrade that has allowed the Institute to install a research facility, create apartments for visiting researchers and designate rooms for events and training.

Just as the Lions Eye Institute doesn't discriminate against transplant recipients by location, the organization collaborates with researchers from around the globe to work toward a cure. It boasts no official university or pharmaceutical affiliation and often teams with international researchers.

A Vision For The Future

The Lions Eye Institute's $7.7 million annual budget relies on donations and fundraising to keep working toward a cure to blindness. Each year, the organization hosts two major events: the Eye Ball and the Race for Sight

In the spring, the Race for Sight, brings the community together to raise awareness for ocular research. This year's race on April 14 in Ybor City includes both a 5K race and a mile walk.

The annual Eye Ball, one of Barlow's favorite events, is held in the fall and serves as a major source of donations for the organization. In 2011, the event brought in more than $150,000, which is going toward expansions and renovations to the Ybor facility.

Fundraising also helps the organization provide services such as those needed by sight-impaired children who are ineligible for cornea transplants. The Institute provides braille reading assistance, conducts special spelling bees and connects those in need to appropriate additional resources.

As Samantha Barlow's mother, Julie, says, "organ donation -- a heart, a kidney, a lung -- it's lifesaving, and that's very important. But eye donation is life improving, and your quality of life is just as important as the length of time you live.''

Theresa Woods is a graduate of the University of South Florida, freelance writer and literature nerd living in Tampa. In her spare time, she writes, contemplates her place in the universe and enjoys being an all-purpose geek with her friends. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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