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Inaugural Virtual Event Celebrates Renewed Hope and Healing

Inaugural Virtual Event Celebrates Renewed Hope and Healing

Last week, SightLife hosted our first Community of Compassion Live Virtual Event during Eye Donation Month – helping to create space for connection and celebration in honor of SightLife’s donor families and the legacy of their loved ones, who gave selflessly so others could see.

Over the years, we’ve held countless donor family celebration events in person, but the COVID-19 pandemic compelled us to adapt and try something new. Remarkably, thanks to the marvels of technology, this year’s donor family celebration brought together over 300 people from an unprecedented number of locations, from Washington, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin to Montana, California, and many more places, including India. The virtual format and approach also allowed us to invite members of our entire Community of Compassion, including corneal transplant recipients and donation partners, to engage and reflect on the transformative impact of eye donation.

Emceed live by SightLife’s beloved Senior Family Services Manager, Rebecca Grossman, and Seattle Times reporter Nicole Brodeur, our virtual event opened with a poignant lighting of a candle and remarks by SightLife Transplant Donor Coordinator (TDC) Lily Silver, who discussed her passion for her work and the meaning she draws from the courage of donor families she connects with every day at work.

Families like Ernie and Karen Eichhorn who shared their experience of losing their son, Ernie Jr., five years ago. They reflected on the difficult, yet important call with a SightLife TDC who walked them through the donation process while acknowledging the enormous grief they were facing. While the grief of losing Ernie Jr. will never go away, they have learned to accept it and continue living life to the fullest in his honor.

Event co-emcee Nicole Brodeur additionally captured the work of our TDCs in her recent Seattle Times article, “SightLife sees clients, staff through pandemic’s setbacks,” which features the perspective and experiences of Elizabeth Pinnick, who consented for her brother Dan to donate. Remarkably, Elizabeth’s conversations with her TDC and other SightLife personnel helped her to move forward with the corneal transplant her surgeon had long been recommending, and moreover, receive one of her own brother’s corneas to restore her deteriorating vision. When thinking back on her experience and Dan’s generosity, she said “It helped me understand true giving… [because] when you give what you truly are, you can’t give more than that. And that’s what Dan gave me.”

Similar themes of gratitude and appreciation were woven into our Community of Compassion event through the stories of two cornea transplant recipients, Gracie and Manoj. After surgery, Gracie, a mother of two from Washington state, was most excited to see the details of her children’s faces – the freckles, smiles and eyes – that she had not seen clearly for years. Manoj, an electrician’s apprentice from Mumbai, India, was encouraged by his boss to undergo a corneal transplant, which enabled him to take on more responsibility and ultimately take over his boss’ business, providing him more security and confidence than ever before. Neither can forget that their renewed sight came from another family’s loss.

Each year, people like Ernie, Jr., Elizabeth, Dan, Gracie, and Manoj – and countless others – drive our work and that of our partners to help us transform lives through the gift of sight. It truly takes a village, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On this point, SightLife CEO Claire Bonilla spoke directly to key constituents during the event, providing poignant words of thanks while underscoring the many challenges we continue to navigate – and adapt to – during these unprecedented times. Here is a brief excerpt:

  • “Donor Families – Thank you for your support and strength on your darkest day. The selfless generosity of your loved ones takes our breath away. Because of them, others can see!
  • Transplant Recipients – You are living proof of the importance of donation.  Your stories demonstrate its transformative impact. Not just the impact it has had on you personally, but also the impact that sight restoration has had on your family, friends, and entire community. Thank you for carrying the legacy of your donor in your heart.
  • Donation Partners – You make our work and impact possible! At every hour of the day and night, you help connect us to donor families so we can both honor the wishes of their loved ones and help transform the lives of those who suffer from corneal blindness.”

SightLife applauds our Community of Compassion’s commitment to ensuring that each donor’s gift is honored and respected. In addition, we are dedicated to helping donor families understand the impact of their loved one’s gift and legacy of generosity, which can help renew hope and healing for people grieving the loss of a loved one. Still, we recognize such things can take time and that no two bereavement journeys are the same – which is why the SightLife Aftercare Program for donor families prioritizes meeting people where they are.

As an example, toward the end of the event, one attendee, Andrew, shared, “Thank you, I have been angry for a while after the loss of our daughter, but this [event] has certainly shed light and helped me see that Hayley is still with us, just as she always wanted.” Andrew was one of many who was joined by his family, including his wife Denise and daughter Hannah, to honor their loved one together.

There are many metrics for success when we orchestrate events, but at the top of the list is our commitment and dedication to creating space for meaningful conversations on the different emotions that can arise in grief, and from donation.

As donor family representative, Karen Eichhorn, so aptly said, “we understand the grieving process, and we have embraced it – it’s our new normal. You have to embrace it because it helps you take a step every day and move forward.”  

We hope this event served our donor families in their grieving process – helping them find comfort, peace, or acceptance in a community that cares. If you were unable to join the live event, we encourage you put your feet up, grab a blanket and create a comfortable space to watch the program in honor of your loved one. For your convenience, we’ve included the time stamps for each program section below..

We look forward to the day when we can safely celebrate donation with each of you in-person, but we are also heartened by the outpouring of support to continue virtual gatherings – even after the pandemic cedes – to bring our whole community together to share stories, provide comfort and support healing. Please follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to learn about future celebrations.

Community of Compassion Program Video Time Stamps:

  • Welcome & Introduction, Rebecca Grossman & Nicole Brodeur – 1:37
  • Transplant Coordinator Donor Overview & Candle Lighting, Lily Silver: 10:30
  • SightLife CEO Message, Claire Bonilla: 13:08
  • Partner and Community Relations Overview & Donor Family Introduction, Dena Gabel: 23:45
  • Donor Family Story, Ernie & Karen Eichhorn: 25:12
  • Eye Recovery Technician Overview & Gracie Video Introduction, Christina So: 39:36
  • Video featuring corneal transplant recipient, Gracie (WA state): 41:07
  • Medical Review Overview & Manoj Video Introduction, Doug Holleman: 46:32
  • Video featuring corneal transplant recipient, Manoj (India): 48:22
  • Community of Compassion Overview, SightLife COO, Jim McCorkle: 54:08
  • Slideshow honoring Donors: 56:39
  • Closing, Rebecca Grossman & Nicole Brodeur: 1:13:43