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This holiday season, talk to your family and friends about giving the gift of eyesight.

November is Eye Donation Month, when organizations such as Dakota Lions Sight & Health are raising awareness about the benefits of eye donations. Dakota Lions Sight & Health is the eye and tissue donation agency for North and South Dakota. In South Dakota, Dakota Lions’ offices are in Rapid City and Sioux Falls.

When disease robs someone of eyesight, the change in vision can happen gradually or rapidly. That lost or diminished eyesight impairs a person’s ability to drive a vehicle, maintain a job, go to school and perform routine daily activities. Cornea transplants can restore quality of life and eyesight, sometimes even providing 20-20 vision, said Dakota Lions Sight & Health CEO Marcy Dimond.

“It’s an amazing gift. We’re only able to do the work we do because individuals make the choice to give the gift of donation,” Dimond said.

Unlike other types of organ donations, almost anyone can be an eye donor regardless of their health during their lifetime.

Anyone who wants to donate their eyes — or other organs — should discuss that decision with their family, Dimond said.

“It’s something most people can give regardless of (whether they have a) disease. The cornea is a bloodless tissue so the risk to transmit any disease is extremely low. We promote and encourage people to register to be a donor, to talk to their family about donations and learn more about it,” she said.

“You can be an eye donor regardless of most other things,” said Alan Berdahl of Sioux Falls, who received cornea transplants in both eyes in 2014. His son John, an eye surgeon, diagnosed his father’s illness and performed the transplants.

In 2006, Berdahl was diagnosed with Fuch’s Dystrophy, an inheritable disease that can cause blindness. Cornea transplants gave him 20-20 vision and will last the rest of his life.

“My sight was going downhill, especially at night. There was a lot of glare,” Berdahl said. His job at the time required driving but because of his sight, driving was becoming dangerous.

Since his cornea transplants, he loves driving at night. “That glare is all gone and I can see. And I’m not going blind. The import of that statement is hard to express. I’m 20-20 uncorrected. I’m enjoying retirement. It’s a quality of life issue,” he said.

Now retired, Berdahl worked for Dakota Lions Sight & Health and continues to be an advocate for their services.

“We had a donor that was blind but he donated his corneas and they were beautiful. The cause of blindness had nothing to do with his corneas. We evaluated them, they were transplanted and two people received the gift of sight from someone totally blind,” Berdahl said.

After an eye donor dies, Dakota Lions dispatches a technician and coordinates the retrieval of the donation – which might be eyes, corneas, muscle or skin, Dimond said. The donations are evaluated, processed and placed for transplant with surgeons in the Dakotas who perform cornea transplants. Dakota Lions provides about 1,000 corneas each year.

“Talk to your family; that’s the most important thing. Let them know you want to be a donor,” Berdahl said. “They’re going to get that phone call within hours of a death when they’re reeling from the loss of a loved one. That family member needs to understand the donor’s wishes. To talk about that and get that ironed out beforehand is really important.”

If a donor's corneas cannot be transplanted, they're still beneficial. “We use those corneas for education and research to teach our technicians,” Berdahl said. “It’s an extremely viable reason to donate.”

Dakota Lions Sight & Health was founded by the Lions Club of South Dakota and still receives limited funding from that nonprofit organization. The Lions Club provides vision screenings for children and collects eyeglasses year-round to benefit adults and children in need. To find eyeglass donation sites in the Black Hills or to learn more about the Kidsight vision screenings, go to sdlions.org.

To learn more about eye donation, go to dakotasight.org.

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