Express transports precious cargo

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Margaret Plevak | May 17, 2015

DELAVAN — For more than 20 years, Terri Yanke, a retired special education teacher in Walworth County and a member of the Delavan Lioness Club, has been a volunteer transporter in a vast relay system nicknamed the “Cornea Express.”

The network involves some 2,500 members of 270 Lions and Lioness Clubs — nonpolitical service clubs — throughout Wisconsin, including 11 in Walworth County, who take human eye tissue either to the Lions Eye Bank of Wisconsin in Madison or local surgical centers — such as Aurora Lakeland Medical Center in Elkhorn — that do corneal transplants.

Rick Daluge, community relations specialist for the LEBW, said Wisconsin Lions Club transporters typically make about 300 trips per month across the state, averaging a combined 25,000 miles. The longest transport route, he said, is from Ashland to Madison, with five pickup points in between.

In the 1960s, Wisconsin had eye banks located in Madison and Milwaukee. In 1998, one central eye bank was formed and became the LEBW. The change reorganized the Cornea Express in the early 2000s, Daluge said.

Yanke remembers her first transport was to Milwaukee. Now, she said, local Lions Club transporters' trips are generally in Walworth, Racine or Rock counties. Typically, they pick up corneal tissue from Aurora Memorial Hospital of Burlington — where it may have come from donors in Milwaukee or Racine — and take it to the front desk of the emergency room at Aurora Lakeland Medical Center. Or they may make the reverse trip. Transporters also might pick up tissue at Lakeland and take it to a Holiday Inn Express in Janesville, where it's given to a Rock County transporter heading for the LEBW.    

The transported tissue is used in corneal transplants that restore sight to people who, only a generation ago, might have been blinded permanently because of an injury, an inherited corneal disease or degeneration.

Last year there were 1,058 transplants nationwide, with 867 in Wisconsin, Daluge said. In 2014, there were 779 Wisconsin donors, who in most cases donated both corneas.

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