Laurie Winslow Sargent 2013-09-10 18:31:14
A modern-day Pony Express, cornea couriers in Iowa answer the bell at all hours. 7:30 a.m. The bedside telephone rings. Gordy, my husband, startles awake. He was sleeping in after a tiring business trip. “Hello, this is Gordon,” he mutters, half-asleep. I’m jarred awake too, although neither of us are actually surprised. We were called last night to make sure Gordy could be on call to help transport corneal tissue to the Iowa Lions Eye Bank in Iowa City. Gordy reaches for a pen as we hear through our speakerphone “… two are available in Ames. Here’s your contact’s phone number. It’s five one five …” He scribbles down the number. His conversation is efficient and concise. The schedule will be tight to get the tissue 145 miles from Ames to Iowa City via three transport volunteers by 10:30 a.m. Gordy hangs up and quickly dials his contact. “This is Gordon from the Lions transport. Are you able to meet?” “I’m ready—where?” They opt for a state office parking lot in Ankeny— about 35 miles away. Gordy looks out our window. “I’ll need a bit more time than usual. It’s pretty snowy in our neighborhood,” he says on the phone. “I can be there in about an hour and fifteen.” The tissue transport system in Iowa functions like the Pony Express that delivered the U.S. mail years ago. Multiple, dedicated volunteers work like a relay team to make sure the tissue arrives quickly in Iowa City. The volunteers share the cost of gas and time. Lions in Iowa took on this duty in 2009 from the Iowa State Patrol. It’s a duty that must be fulfilled, rain or snow, holiday or weekend. The Eye Bank program runs 365 days a year. More than 100 Lions volunteer. Gordy put in about 1,000 miles last year on 14 trips, but many Lions, located more distantly, drive more. Central Iowa Lions Transporters have driven more than 950 trips to transport corneal tissue. We both jump out of bed to get ready. I don’t always go along, but will this time. We have to be out the door in 10 minutes, so there’s no time to make coffee. But I want my husband to be an alert driver. As we get dressed, we discuss swinging quickly through the drive-through Starbucks near the hospital. Gordy suggests, “Shall we split a Venti —five shots?” I grimace. He sure does need a jumpstart. At age 57, Gordy Sargent is a youngster in his Lions club; many members are retirees. Gordy works full time as a regulatory & compliance manager for BASF (formerly Becker Underwood). As immediate past president of the Ames Noon Lions Club in Iowa, he joins members for lunch once a week to host guest speakers and plan fundraising events including their infamous biannual turkey dinner, which brings in busloads of retirees in the Story County area. Gordy transports corneas for the eye bank once or twice a month. 7:40 a.m. Outside all is grey from the menacing sky to the dirty curbside snow. I grab the handle inside and above the passenger door of our dark grey Sequoia and swing myself up into the seat. Pulling out of our driveway, Gordy brakes tentatively to check for black ice. We’re reassured by the good traction. Between home and the hospital we quietly gather our thoughts. Knowing that for every donor there is a grieving family is sobering. We have no idea who the donors are. Privacy laws restrict what we can be told. But I lift up a prayer and feel grateful for the families whose gift we are to gently transport. By saying “yes” to donating their loved ones’ tissue, the gift has already begun its journey to the person who will receive new sight. 7:55 a.m. We’ve quickly picked up Gordy’s mud-in-a-cup and are already parked near the emergency room door at Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames. Gordy leaves the engine running and runs in to the front desk to show his Lion’s badge. “I’m here with the Lions club for the tissue transport,” he announces. He’s quickly handed two very lightweight, white Styrofoam coolers about the size of soccer balls. Nestled inside each cooler are chambers with solution where the corneas gently float, a blood sample for mandatory serological testing and ice. The cornea is the transparent, dome-shaped window covering the front of the eye. It works, in addition to the lens, to provide focusing power to the eye. If the cornea becomes opaque, swollen or scarred, vision is compromised and a cornea transplant may be necessary. Gordy signs the paperwork, loads the coolers gently onto the back seat of our SUV and off we go again. As we begin our trip from Ames to the Des Moines area, we naturally battle over car temperature as we have for 33 years of marriage. The 6-foot-1 Gordy is a lifelong weight lifter with biceps the size of cantaloupes and perpetually warm. I’m a sedentary writer, perpetually cold. We compromise. We hit a bump in the highway, and I reflexively check the coolers in the back seat to make sure they are still secure. To camouflage the rumble Gordon channel surfs on the radio, flipping between a country music station, a kitchen remodeling show and a news broadcast on Seizure Assistance Dogs. The latter intrigues me because Gordon’s Lions club also sponsors Leader Dogs for the Blind. The landscape we pass looks bleak–acres of flat, snowcovered land. (The summer view is of waving corn stalks and rippling soybeans). We pass no less than 11 cars in ditches marked with yellow tape for tow-trucks to retrieve. I hope we don’t join them. 8:45 a.m. We made good time after all, and are even a bit early. As we pull into the designated parking lot, we see a car already waiting. The driver quickly leaps out, and within a minute has already carried the coolers to his running car. I persuade him to step out for a quick photo with Gordy before he drives off to meet the next volunteer. His drive will be a bit longer—about 50 miles to Grinnell. The third volunteer will drive the last 70 miles to Iowa City. 10:30 a.m. By now the tissue should have arrived on time in Iowa City at the Iowa Lions Eye Bank, the only eye bank to provide eight tissue preparation services to surgeons locally, nationally and internationally. Certified eye bank technicians evaluate each cornea with specialized microscopes to ensure that the tissue meets and exceeds required organizational criteria for transplantation. Each cornea is labeled with a unique identification number to allow the eye bank to track the tissue from donor to recipient. The corneas normally are ready for transplant within two days of their arrival. Gordy and I are back at home. We’re a bit tired but happy to know we played a small but important part in helping someone see. Corneal Transplantation Facts • Anyone can be an eye donor. Age, cancer, poor eyesight, diabetes or cataracts will not prohibit eye donation. • Corneal transplant operations are more than 95 percent successful in restoring the recipient’s vision. • A cornea transplant is typically performed within two to five days following the donation. Successful outcomes for the recipients rely on timely transplants. • Register to be an eye, organ and tissue donor at www.DonateLife.net
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