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Hospices Give New Choices

An eye donation program for hospices run by the Rocky Mountain Lions Eye Bank restored the sight of 149 people in ten states and six other countries last year. Another 34 donated eye tissues were used in valuable research into ways to overcome blindness. The program is unique to other donation programs around the country because it was designed specifically for the needs of hospices and their patients.

"Most eye, organ and tissue donation systems were built for hospitals and were designed to help families make decisions after a death," said Robert Austin, the eye bank's public and professional relations manager. "Those systems don't work for hospices, which are trying to help patients and their families make decisions in advance of a death." The eye bank worked with hospice professionals to design the system, which gives hospices the tools to determine if a patient has eligibility to be an eye donor and whether the patient already has decided to donate through the state organ and tissue donor registry. The hospice can then facilitate the discussion about the donation with the patient and the patient's family when the time is right. The eye bank provides free training for hospice staff on using the system and how to have these conversations.

For over a decade, hospitals have had federal mandates to give the option of eye, organ and tissue donation to eligible families after a death. Hospices have no such regulatory obligation so it became clear that patients and families may lose the choice to donate by choosing to die at home under hospice care. In Colorado, 45 percent of all expected deaths occur under the care of a hospice. That translates to over 14,000 deaths each year.

In 2009, a total of 136 eye donors from two hospices participated in the program: Pikes Peak Hospice and Palliative Care in Colorado Springs and Exempla Lutheran Hospice at the Collier Center in Wheat Ridge. Two other hospices, Colorado Community Hospice in Denver and Pathways Hospice in Fort Collins, joined the program in 2010, bringing even more patients and their families the opportunity to leave the legacy of sight.

One donor, Terry Dionisio, shared her story with the eye bank. Read her story here.