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By: NKECHI IBENEME
ixteen-year-old Bose Jinadu was born with bilateral congenital cornea opacity, which left her with a blurry vision. With the little vision Bose had, she managed to attend school and was a student of Molaks High School at Rogo, Ishaga – a suburb of Lagos, Nigeria until 2016 when she lost what remained of her sight – she became blind. This forced her to quit school. She was then in JSS 2.
Narrating her ordeal during those dark years, Bose, whose parents are poor and could not do much to help her case, had this to say: “I was very sad and depressed. I‘d lost hope and cried every day. I couldn’t go out on my own and school was out of it. I became really, really sad and depressed.”
The blindness changed Bose’s life and almost thwarted her dreams until a Good Samaritan opened a vista when she went through a cornea transplant last November at the Eye Bank Nigeria.
Today she has regained her sight, though in one eye. The other eye is damaged beyond redemption.
Nevertheless with the restored vision, Bose is happier and she plans to return to school. And guess what? She wants to become an eye doctor. She wants to help people with eye problems in future.
“I am very happy now. I can go to nearby shops to buy things for my mum and I have hope of returning to school. I am very grateful to Alhaja (the Good Samaritan) and the doctors that helped me to regain my sight. If it’s possible, I would love to become an eye doctor to help people in future. Life can be really difficult for somebody when he loses his sight,” Bose pointed out.
Cornea is the clear tissue covering the front of the eye. Through it, light passes to the eyes to create vision. But, if the cornea becomes cloudy or opaque from disease, injury, infection or poor nutrition, vision is drastically reduced or completely lost.
According to the Eye Bank Nigeria, more children and young adults are affected by cornea opacity. The good news, however, is that the replacement of a damaged cornea with a healthy donated human cornea through a surgical procedure, can reverse cornea blindness.
The bad news, the Chief Medical Director of the eye clinic, Dr. Mosunmola Faderin, noted is that Nigerians have yet to fully embrace the act of donating their cornea or other vital organs at death.
This is adversely affecting restoring vision to cornea-blind persons.
She said, “Though there are trained, highly qualified cornea surgeons and hospitals with facilities to do the transplant, there are no eye tissues because of lack of donation, and cornea can only be legally sourced through donations. We don’t buy; it’s a crime to sell.”
The Eye Bank Nigeria, housed within the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LASUTH), is a non-governmental, not- for- profit organization established in 1973.
The vision for the bank was nursed by Chief Dr. Olaseinde Akinsete, a foremost ophthalmologist, who along with two of his friends, were the first set of doctors to do cornea grafting in Nigeria in the late 1960s.
Akinsete, driven by vision and passion, sent a proposal to the then Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, for the establishment of an eye bank in Nigeria. Upon approval, he drew up the cornea graft decree, which was signed into law on May 5, 1973 as Decree 23.
However, despite the approval being given in 1973, the centre did not begin operations until around 2003/2004. At Akinsete’s 75th birthday, he said he wanted to see his dreams of an eye bank actualized. He requested that every birthday gift to him that year be monetised. At that time, he was the chairman of the executive council of the Nigerian Society for the Blind and was also a former president of the Ophthalmological Society of Nigeria.
The two organisations came together to set up the eye bank in his honour while Lagos State donated the space which houses the bank to date.
But from 2004 to 2008, nothing happened. Therefore, the organization decided to embark on what it called, ‘Seeing is believing campaign.’ By this, Faderin said they had to source for corneas from donor countries like India and America to demonstrate the efficacy and importance of the procedure to Nigerians.
This according to her did not do the expected magic.
However, the organization recorded a breakthrough in 2010 when it had the first Nigerian to donate his eyes.
“It was a pathetic story. The man was assassinated two hours after he left home and we were called by his family to come and harvest his eyes because he was a donor. Being the first donor case, the bureaucracy encountered was too much and by the time we were given the go-ahead to harvest the eyes, it was already over 24 hours – if a donor dies, the harvesting must be done within 18 hours.
“After the approval was given, we didn’t want to use the cornea anymore but his children were crying and begging us to use it because their father had made them promise to give it out should anything happen to him. We reluctantly used it and by the grace of God, the two people that received the corneas are seeing today,” she recalled.
Faderin added, “In 2012 also, Dr. Akinsete’s wife passed (away) and she gave her corneas too. Since then, we haven’t had any donations. About 60 old people have signed to donate their corneas at death, but the challenge is, if their families don’t get to inform us within the stipulated timing of 18 hours, there’s no way we would know of their demise and we can’t go knocking on doors.”
Speaking on the reluctance of Nigerians to donate their corneas and other vital organs at death, Faderin pointed out that once a dead person is interred, within one month, everything is gone. She disclosed that the first organs to disappear after death are the eyes: they usually melt away within days after a person’s death.
Encouraging Nigerians to donate their corneas at death, she narrated an experience she once had when she travelled to India in search of corneas.
“While in India, a woman of about 62 years had just died and the doctors were called in for the harvesting of her cornea being a donor; I went with them. On seeing me, the deceased’s son asked the Indian doctors what a black woman was doing with them. They told him that I was a doctor from an eye bank in Nigeria, who had come to learn and to see if I could get corneas to help people with cornea challenges back home.
“So, he asked them if it was possible for his mother’s eyes to be taken down to Africa and they agreed. The guy, crying, hugged me and said, ‘Thank you: even though my mother is dead, I am happy that with you, she will be giving sight to someone in faraway Africa. So, in her death, she would be giving life to someone else.’ It became my own mantra that: in death, we can give life,” the doctor narrated.
The Eye Bank Nigeria currently gets its supply of corneas from eye centres in the United States of America – free – where she and some of her colleagues were trained. The challenges they, however, face is the high processing fees (testing the blood and other details plus shipment) and the high cost of optisol-gs used in preserving the corneas.
Her biggest challenge is the Nigeria Customs Service. When she ordered the cornea grafted on Bose, she alleged that the Customs officials had insisted she should go through a clearing agent despite having a document indicating an approval from the Comptroller of Nigeria Customs Service to bring in corneas free of charge.
She said that it got to a stage she told the officials that she was going to leave the cornea but that it must not expire, threatening the officials with a lawsuit law suit if it did. A harvested – unused – cornea lasts for a maximum of 14 days.
Throwing more light on the need for Nigerians to embrace cornea and other organs donation at death, Faderin stated that most of the donor forms abroad now have portions where the donors are asked if they want their organs sent abroad and most of them are saying no.
She fears that with time, Nigeria may not get corneas from overseas again, urging Nigerians to do away with the superstitious beliefs about organ donation at death and be their brother’s keeper.
“Kenya just started cornea grafting long after us. They harvest about 200 corneas every year. They are also an African country. Why can’t we in Nigeria do something?” the doctor wondered.
To donate, a person is given a form to fill and afterwards given a card which they are encouraged to carry about in case of an accident. Donors are also encouraged to tell their family members of their decision so that family members can carry it out his or her will at death.
On how they get funding for their operations, Faderin stated that they usually go cap-in-hand to some well-meaning Nigerians for support.
Thus far, the clinic has enjoyed support from Ikoyi Club, Yoruba Tennis Club, Island Club, and Chief Folorunsho Alakija.
To further intensify its sensitization campaign, the Eye Bank Nigeria recently unveiled actress, Dakore Egbuson Akande as its ‘Donate a cornea’ campaign ambassador.