The social isolation many of us face while helping to flatten the curve is what people who are corneal blind experience every day. But unlike a temporary stay-at-home order, corneal blindness is permanent for patients without access to a corneal transplant.
Before March 19, a range of sight-restoring procedures were possible because of SightLife’s extensive cornea donation and transplant partnerships in Washington state and globally. That all changed when Gov. Jay Inslee halted elective surgeries, including corneal transplants, to shore up nonemergency health-care resources for COVID-19’s front lines.
SightLife quickly obliged, but the cancellation of surgeries, likely extending for several months, will cost the nonprofit at least $5 million in lost revenue. This is money SightLife doesn’t have because its federally regulated cost-recovery revenue model, involving the recovery of donor cornea for corneal transplants, fuels nearly 85% of its operations. Without immediate relief funding, the critical services SightLife provides to Washingtonians and the world are in serious jeopardy.
Founded in 1969 by the Northwest Lions, SightLife is the world’s leading eye bank and community health organization dedicated to eliminating corneal blindness through sight restoration and blindness prevention. The only cornea recovery agency for Washington state, SightLife has 95 employees from Seattle to Spokane, plus additional staff and programs throughout the U.S. and internationally.
In the U.S., more than 50,000 people annually require corneal transplants. While any of us can become corneal blind from a simple scratch to the eye, people with limited access to protective eyewear, deficient in Vitamin A, or vulnerable to a range of eye diseases and infections are at higher risk.
People like Gracie Mercado, a mother of two in Duvall, who, a few months after developing keratoconus, a nonhereditary eye disease, not only lost her sight but struggled to help her children with homework, get them to school and cook them meals. Fortunately, a cornea donation made possible by SightLife put a transplant within reach, and soon she could see again.
Last year, SightLife collaborated with its global partners to provide 37,456 donor corneas for transplant and helped thousands of Washingtonians benefit from the gift of sight, which includes high-touch grief support for donor families during their darkest hour.
More than 90% of the 12.7 million people worldwide who are corneal blind and the 1.5 million additional people who become corneal blind each year, including 350,000 children, live in low- and middle-income countries where eye health care across all stages of life is a luxury few can afford.
And yet, no matter where they live, all people suffering needlessly from corneal blindness face an array of obstacles to staying in school, maintaining a livelihood, and providing for their loved ones — including in Washington state.
To preserve its eye bank operations amid the COVID-19 crisis, SightLife’s leadership has furloughed a third of its technical staff and reduced the salaries of many more. Simultaneously, the nonprofit has raised $250,000 in charitable gifts and applied for a Small Business Administration Economic Injury Disaster Loan and Paycheck Protection. While it’s unclear when these SBA funds will come in, they and SightLife’s philanthropic campaign are not enough to bridge SightLife’s revenue gap, especially if the SBA rations its funding to $15,000 per applicant, as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has reported.
It’s understandable that government must focus on the basic needs of our most vulnerable, including now a record number of unemployed. But with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services close to implementing its $100 billion Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund, it’s imperative that Congress and HHS Secretary Alex Azar ensure the public health fund includes disproportionately impacted community health organizations like SightLife, whose future lies in precarious balance.
While many of us are contemplating what we’ll do first with friends and family after emerging from the stay-at-home order, we urge policymakers not to forget about those who will continue to suffer in isolation unless they have the chance to see the world through new eyes once COVID-19 retreats.