Partner Profile – Xi’an Eye Bank

Partner Profile – Xi’an Eye Bank

The novel coronavirus has disrupted corneal health care and eye bank operations around the world. As China begins to re-open, our editorial team connected with Mr. Yong Yin, Eye Bank Director at Xi’an No.1 Hospital, a SightLife partner in central China, to discuss his learnings after COVID-19 surfaced in the neighboring Hubei province.

In late January, while many were preparing for the spring festival, or Chinese New Year, Mr. Yin was contemplating when and how coronavirus might impact operations at the Xi’an No.1 Hospital Eye bank—and what he’d need to do in response. After starting his career as the only staff member of the eye bank more than 28 years ago, he’d grown the team to a staff of nine, dedicated to saving and restoring sight. But then COVID-19 struck.

Initially, the changes were subtle. Eye bank personnel were still able to go out and contact families who might be interested and willing to consent to donating their loved one’s cornea. Recoveries continued despite an increase of restrictions for those who traveled to COVID-19 hot spots. But as new cases continued to emerge, additional restrictions were put in place and critical PPE for local hospitals became increasingly difficult to obtain. By February the city was in lockdown to stop the virus from spreading. Mr. Yin ordered his staff to work from home.  Shortly thereafter eye banking operations officially and very quickly ceased.

“Most people could not go to the hospital to have their eyes checked,” recalls Mr. Yin.  

The impact of the eye bank temporarily closing reached beyond the city of Xi’an because many of the hospital’s corneal care patients come from neighboring cities and provinces. As COVID-19 spread, not only was the Xi’an Eye Bank unable to facilitate the cornea donation and recovery process, broad travel restrictions precluded out-of-town patients from being screened for corneal ulcers and receiving treatment to prevent the progression to blindness.

With operations halted, Mr. Yin tried to secure much needed PPE for hospital staff at the front lines of the pandemic. As the Xi’an Hospital’s U.S. partner in corneal care, SightLife quickly explored how best to support Mr. Yin, but US shortages made it logistically impossible to fulfill his PPE request. Fortunately, an increase in the rapid production of PPE in China would eventually help Xi’an Hospital acquire the supplies it needed to keep their medical professionals safe.

In March, as the COVID-19 case rate in China was stabilizing, the situation in the US became was increasingly dire. Recognizing the situation and wanting to help, Mr. Yin quickly secured surplus PPE, and then generously shipped it to SightLife in Seattle. Upon receipt of the PPE, we distributed it to local hospitals in downtown Seattle and the neighboring cities of Redmond and Kirkland, the original epicenter of COVID-19 in the U.S. A portion of the shipment was also forwarded to a SightLife partner hospital outside of San Francisco.

Today, with many COVID-19 related restrictions now lifting throughout China, Mr. Yin is hopeful that Xi’an Eye Bank can rebuild the momentum that his team once achieved through the gift of sight. As the US begins to lift restrictions on elective surgeries, including corneal transplants, Mr. Yin offers key insights on working to ramp up donor volumes while adapting to a new normal resulting from pandemic. Overall, because “outside of training activities and awareness events, many of our activities have resumed,” Mr. Yin has focused on bolstering safety protocols through:

  • Nucleic acid testing to detect whether COVID-19 was present in the potential donor.
  • More rigorous hand-washing guidelines to prevent viral spread.
  • Regular sterilization of equipment to eliminate contamination.
  • Strict face mask requirements to protect recovery technicians.

“None of us could have predicted how serious the pandemic would be, but I think it can be controlled as long as we take appropriate measures to deal with it.” Mr. Yin explained. “We must follow necessary and added measures in terms of wearing masks, washing hands frequently and sterilizing during recovery. If we follow these measures strictly, I think we can continue to deliver our sight-saving and restoring work”.

SightLife is grateful to Mr. Yin for his insights and generous donation of PPE. As restrictions on elective surgeries begin to lift in the U.S., clinics are understandably focusing on cataract surgeries first to help them recoup their costs faster. And yet, we are hopeful that all patients will soon receive the sight-restoring surgeries they need. To help SightLife rebuild during this difficult and protracted time of uncertainty, please visit sightlife.org/covid-19.