Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 23 May 2014
A piece of air cargo, compact and unusual, left our island on 25 May 1964, a Vesak Poya day. It contained a thermos flask, inside which were six sterilised bottles packed in ice. Each one contained a human eye, donated by Lankans who had died in the preceding 24 hours.
Having been hand carried from Colombo to Singapore, they were rushed to Singapore general hospital on arrival. There, eye surgeons grafted the corneas on five people suffering from reversible corneal blindness.
So started a ‘mercy mission’ that has been sustained for half a century, during which time over 66,500 eye corneas have been donated from Sri Lanka to a total of 117 cities in 54 countries worldwide (by end April 2014).
In addition, over 40,000 corneas have been donated locally for sight-saving operations.
“It’s the most outstanding act of mass generosity I’ve ever heard of,” Dr Hudson Silva (1929 – 1999), founder of the Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society, summed it up in 1994, when the Reader’s Digest chose him as a ‘Hero for Today’.
That was the fourth occasion the global magazine featured him, a rare feat. Dr Silva was one of the most widely honoured and decorated Lankans of the 20th century — and with good reason.
Today, 15 years after its founder passed away, the Eye Donation Society, a voluntary organisation and approved charity, operates the non-profit international eye bank and continues his life’s mission.
It all started with a newspaper article. As a medical student at the Colombo medical school in the 1950s, young Hudson Silva heard a professor say how hard it was to find corneas for grafting. (The cornea is the transparent, bloodless tissue on the front of the eye.)
At the time, some came from hanged prisoners, but that too stopped when the death sentence was suspended in 1956. There was a long waiting list for cornea transplants.
On 19 January 1958, Silva wrote an article in Lankadeepa newspaper describing the medical technology of corneal grafting, and highlighting the shortage of corneas in hospitals. Why not get living persons to pledge their eyes for donation upon death, he asked.
“The response was dramatic,” he later recalled. “Within a few weeks, we had hundreds of prospective eye donors – some even offering to give one eye while still alive!”
Inspired by the Buddhist virtue of organ donation, Dr Silva started the Eye Donation Society later that year, shortly after being posted as a medical officer at Nagoda hospital in Kalutara. Its first meeting was held at the Mahawaskaduwa Sri Sudharmarama temple in Kalutara district on 30 December 1958.
Last year, while filming a biographical documentary on Dr Silva, I visited the temple and hospital with a camera crew. None of the current monks or doctors knew a great humanitarian movement had originated there.
Dr Silva was a social innovator who solved a problem by matching a medical need with the necessary technical facilities and a grassroots network of eye donors and supporters.
From the outset, he ensured that donors came from various ethnic and religious backgrounds, and from all levels of society. Over the years, heads of state, religious dignitaries, renowned artists and thousands of ordinary people have donated eyes. Over a million living Lankans have signed pledges.
Sending corneas overseas was started only when supply began to exceed all local needs, which happened around 1963. Dr Silva knew that many countries faced a shortage of corneas, as organ donation was not allowed or encouraged in some cultures.
So he wrote ‘blindly’ to leading eye hospitals of the world, asking if they could use corneas from Sri Lanka. The eye bank in New York responded, asking for as many eyes as could be spared. But it was Singapore that received the first eye donation, followed by Ethiopia. The rest is history.
In the early days, corneas could be preserved only for 96 hours after extraction (which needed to be done within four hours of death). Getting them from somewhere in Sri Lanka to a recipient in a far away city in Asia, Africa, Europe or Latin America involved many logistical challenges – especially when flights were less frequent and telecommunications not as advanced.
Despite this, Dr Silva and team kept on sending eyes to far corners of the world. Each dispatch was like running a ‘relay’ through airports, Customs and into the hands of anxious eye surgeons at the receiving end. A few years on, Dr Silva designed a special ‘cold box’ for sending donated corneas over long distances.
Sometimes friends travelling overseas were persuaded to hand carry this precious cargo. Sarvodaya leader Dr A T Ariyaratne recalls how his friend Hudson entrusted him with some corneas to be taken to the Philippines in 1974. Upon reaching Manila airport, the eyes received a greater welcome!
For nearly two decades, the Eye Donation Society operated from Dr Silva’s modest flat at Ward Place, Colombo, with his wife Iranganie and son Nandana co-opted as permanent volunteers. In 1984, the operation moved to a more spacious office and laboratory at Vidya Mawatha in Colombo 7. The complex was built with local and foreign donations.
As a young journalist, I got to know Dr Hudson Silva when I covered his work in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I remember him as amiable, versatile and indefatigable.
A great fixer and builder, he collaborated with a wide range of groups, and never let the lack of resources hold things back. He personally extracted thousands of donated eyes, and initiated global “eye relays” on numerous occasions, sometimes working through nights, holidays, curfews and two insurgencies.
He was also remarkably resilient. His work attracted bouquets and brickbats, both of which he accepted with equanimity. He battled our health bureaucracy for years, before he was ‘compulsorily retired’ in 1967 – allegedly for criticising the Health Department on wasting donated eyes! In 1990-92, he faced severe governmental harassment by the infamous ‘NGO Commission’ (which was dissolved by President Wijetunga).
He kept innovating and problem solving all his life. When HIV/AIDS emerged as a public health concern in the 1980s, he was quick to introduce necessary precautions. Today, extracted eye corneas are screened for HIV 1 and 2, Hepatitis B and C as well as syphilis.
In the 1990s, Dr Silva launched a human tissue bank to cover other elements such as all kinds of bones, amniotic membrane and skin. As with eyes, strict medical and ethical guidelines are followed by well trained staff.
Unlike most such facilities elsewhere in the world, the Sri Lanka eye and tissue banks operate on non-commercially. That means the Eye Donation Society relies on donations in cash and kind. Dr Silva gratefully accepted such support, but credited the thousands of eye donors as the main reason for success.
Eye donation has earned Sri Lanka unparalleled gratitude and goodwill around the world. Thousands of people from dozens of nationalities have received the gift of sight from Lankan eyes.
Dr Silva and his legacy epitomise Lankan ‘soft power’ at its finest: engaging the world on our own terms, and earning global goodwill for innovating thinking, principled positions and exemplary service. He found harmony between old values and modern society.
Dr Hudson Silva biographical documentary, which I presented on Hiru TV in April 2013: