By Todd Cohen
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — When Kurt Weber joined the North Carolina Eye Bank as executive director in April 1999, the Winston-Salem nonprofit employed seven staffers full-time, provided 500 corneas a year for transplantation and 425 for research, and simply was breaking even on its $1 million annual budget.
Faced with a new federal rule that required eye banks and other human tissue establishments to comply with medical standards, Weber initiated an effort to assess the organization’s operations and strategy.
As a result, the Eye Bank changed from a “place where everybody did everything,” Weber says, to an organization with five departments focused on tasks ranging from training hospital personnel and working with donors to handling tissue and complying with federal rules and industry standards.
The Eye Bank, which now employs 30 full-time and 20 part-time staff, last year provided 1,800 corneas for transplantation and 510 for research, and expects the volume of tissue it handles to grow by 10 percent a year without the need for additional staff.
And it is posting a 10 percent margin of revenue over expenses on its $3.1 million annual budget.
The Eye Bank, which has offices in Durham, Fayetteville and Greenville, as well as staff who are based in Wilmington, also sold a 3,500-square-foot building it had built in 1963 near Forsyth Medical Center.
It used the $400,000 it generated from the sale to equip 7,000 square feet of leased space it now occupies in Westpoint Business Park off Stratford Road.
One of two eye banks in the state – LifeShare at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte serves that region and the Asheville area – the Eye Bank no longer needs to “import” corneas into the state and now provides more than 900 corneas for transplantation outside North Carolina.
The Eye Bank, which generates most of its revenue from processing fees paid by transplant or research facilities, does not actively seek financial contributions, although it has received donations in memory of donors or honoring recipients.
And in recent years, it has received grants from the Winston-Salem Foundation to buy laboratory equipment and from the North Carolina Lions Foundation to conduct glaucoma research.
As part of the N.C. Coalition on Donation, the Eye Bank has teamed up with LifeShare and Carolina Donor Services in Charlotte to raise $100,000 to $150,000 to finance an online donor registry authorized last year by state lawmakers that is expected to be launched by June 2004.
Roughly half the families the Eye Bank talks to give their consent for donations, compared to an estimated 35 percent to 40 percent nationally.
North Carolinians “have embraced eye donation as a meaningful, viable end-of-life decision,” says Weber.
“Our ability to restore sight through corneal transplantation is dependent on altruism,” he says. “Altruism is alive and well in North Carolina.”