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A Fitting Tribute

Dean Vavra at Iowa Donor Garden

by Dean Vavra

This is my thirty-seventh official year as an eye banker, but in a way eye banking has been a part of my life much longer than that. A genetic eye disease called granular dystrophy type 2 afflicted my grandmother, my mother and four of my brothers. (I was lucky enough to escape the condition.) This is a particularly cruel form of blindness that causes lesions to grow on the cornea, and even after a corneal transplant these painful opacities grow back into the graft tissue. So, my mother, grandmother and siblings all required multiple corneal transplants. In fact, in the early 1950s, before I was born, my mother and grandmother had two of the first corneal transplants performed in America.

Surprisingly, though, it wasn’t my family’s experience with corneal transplants that led me to eye banking. After high school I entered the Army, where I was a medic and worked in an eye clinic. One day the corneal surgeon suggested I learn to do eye banking. That was 37 years ago, and I’ve been doing it ever since. So, I think it’s almost divinely inspired that I stumbled into this field, since everybody in my family suffers from corneal blindness.

All that was on my mind last May when my wife and I traveled to Iowa City, Iowa to purchase a stone honoring my mother, Ferne G. Vavra, in the Iowa Lions Donor Memorial and Healing Garden. The Iowa Lions Eye Bank at the University of Iowa created the garden as a place where family and friends can honor eye, organ and tissue donors and recipients. I had learned about the garden during an earlier trip to Iowa, and I felt that purchasing a stone to honor my mother and immortalize her there would be an appropriate tribute, because she’s not only my mother, she’s also the mother of my eye bank journey. It was a very nice ceremony, and my wife took the photos you see here.

If you would like to honor an eye donor or recipient, I encourage you to purchase a stone in the Iowa Lions Donor Memorial and Healing Garden. It’s a wonderful way to remember the person, and the funds go to help support research at the University of Iowa on ophthalmology diseases. And you don’t even have to go to Iowa to do it, although it is a great place to visit. You can purchase a stone online here:

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