About 115 Manitobans are waiting up to a year for life-changing cornea transplants, but a charity could be freeing up some of its funds to import more corneas from the United States, according to a surgeon.

Dr. Guillermo Rocha, a Manitoba surgeon and the president of a national association representing corneal surgeons, says some of the money being collected by the Lions could be used to import corneas from the U.S. and clear off waiting lists in this province.


Manitoba surgeon Dr. Guillermo Rocha says some of the money being collected by the Lions could be used to import corneas from the U.S. and clear off cornea transplant waiting lists in the province. (CBC)

"They have funds that have been tagged for eliminating corneal blindness but it has always been difficult to extract those funds and put them to use." Rocha told CBC News.

According to public charitable tax records, The Lions Eye Bank and Lions Foundation of Manitoba & Northwestern Ontario Inc. have almost $900,000 in a long-term investment fund.

They use the interest from that amount to fund their programs, which include a hearing aid program, the collection of eyeglasses, rural housing, and maintaining professional staff, equipment and training to support the medical side of the eye bank, which is called the Misericordia Lions Eye Bank.

Elly Prendergast, the charity's executive director, says her organization raises a lot of money through its charitable activities for a variety of vision-related causes, not just for cornea transplants.

"It's well documented that the Journey for Sight [event] over the course of time has raised over $1.7 million," she told CBC News in an interview.

"I'm happy to say, and pardon the pun, [the] Misericordia Health Centre medical lab has received the lion's share of that $1.7 million over the years. We provide them a trust account that's given to them yearly for their own designation."

$200K given away in 2012

Prendergast said the $900,000 keeps the charity going. She points out the Lions gave away over $200,000 last year alone, including to the eye bank trust account.

"It would be foolish for anyone to think that we could give up the capital to assist in only one part of corneal transplantation," Prendergast said.

"We used the interest on that capital to support all health facilities and their equipment throughout Manitoba and northwest Ontario."

But Rocha said while the charity is great at raising money for the cause, the funds should come to the medical side of the eye bank directly.

"They do contribute a certain amount per year, it is not in that spirit that I am talking about with no barriers," he said.

"Let's use this amount to bring in 100 tissues from the United States, for example, over the course of six or eight months and eliminate corneal blindness in Manitoba. That would be an obtainable goal."

Prendergast said the board is willing to review any request that comes from the eye bank and the surgeons there — including the importing of corneas, which she said they have done in the past.

"We have freed up those funds for the importing of cornea at the request of the doctors," she said.

"I'm not saying that we're saying no more. But in terms of a business … and nobody likes to talk business when we're talking about patient care, [but]

if you're not responsible you're not going to have any. So it's a fine balance."