It seems cruel to say, but SightLife is an organization built on loss.
The loss of vision. The loss of life. The early, blurry days of grief, when a family must decide whether to donate a loved one’s organs, and, on the other side, when transplant recipients wait to learn if and when their life will be transformed.
And yet, for 50 years, the nonprofit has managed it all, building a community of hospitals and doctors, and donors and supporters centered on giving sight through corneal transplants. (SightLife also screens and gets consent for other organ and tissue donations for the entire state of Washington.)
Then COVID-19 hit, and SightLife was faced with losses of its own. The elective surgeries that generate nearly 85% of its revenue were suspended, forcing it to furlough 46 staffers, including grief counselors who tend to donor families.
“Death is recession-proof,” said SightLife CEO Claire Bonilla. “Normally, it’s not something that is impacted by the economy or an election year. But we were, and we have been adapting in ways I have never seen before.”
In October, and with the help of King County Councilwoman Jeanne Kohl-Welles, the nonprofit received $133,000 in funding through the CARES Act, which allowed it to bring its staff back, and to continue to tend to the clients affected by COVID-19 — whether they lost someone, or were waiting for a transplant that would end their visual isolation.
It all happened just in time for this, Eye Donation Month, when SightLife is feeling renewed hope and healing — something Bonilla believes we all need.
“We’re just able to keep the lights on,” she said. “But we’re making the most of it, celebrating life and managing grief at the same time.”
Now SightLife is growing its grief, donation and recovery services online. It’ll hold its first virtual national Donor Family Celebration, an online gathering of recipients and donor families, and on Nov. 13-15, its Mission in Motion Three-Day Challenge, its first virtual fundraising campaign.
Elizabeth Pinnick will be there in honor of her brother, Dan Carpenter, who died from natural causes in March 2019. Two days after he was taken off life support, Pinnick received one of his corneas.
“SightLife called and asked if I would give permission to have Dan’s corneas donated,” Pinnick remembered, “and midway through the conversation, I said, ‘I would like to receive one.’ “
Her eye doctor had wanted her to have corneal surgery before she lost all the vision in her right eye. Her brother’s death made it possible.
“I knew that’s what Dan would have wanted,” said Pinnick, 71, who lives in Shoreline.
And the transplant brings her a certain kind of comfort. Her brother stayed with her for a while near the end of his life, she said. They gardened and talked, with a closeness that comes from being just 10 months apart.
“I still grieve Dan because he was so important in my life,” Pinnick said. “But I feel very grateful and feel deeper in my feelings of love for Dan. He gave me the gift of vision.”
Since the pandemic began, SightLife has put a strong focus on safety, increasing its procedures for screening tissue, even though the virus isn’t believed to pass through corneal tissue, Bonilla said.
But they’re working with less; the virus has caused a decrease in the overall amount of tissue it can accept for transplants.
“So it’s more important than ever that people step up,” Bonilla said. “Everyone thinks there is more tissue being donated, but there’s less.
“This takes a community to support each other.”
Pinnick feels that every day, seeing the world anew with her late brother’s help and SightLife’s guidance and support.
“It helped me understand true giving,” Pinnick said. “When you give what you truly are, you can’t give more than that. And that’s what Dan gave me.”