Once, he witnessed an amazing gift. Today he’s Tampa’s Lions Eye CEO.

The head of the major eye bank in Ybor City talks about the gift of sight, evolving attitudes on donating and his adopted dogs.
Jason Woody, president and CEO of Lions Eye Institute for Transplant & Research, gets the attention of a laboratory specialist working at the facility.
Jason Woody, president and CEO of Lions Eye Institute for Transplant & Research, gets the attention of a laboratory specialist working at the facility. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Sept. 20, 2022

In 1989, Jason Woody was getting ready to graduate from surgical technician school. During his final rotation at Tampa General Hospital, he saw a mother and her grown son together in a hospital room. They were holding hands.

Woody would learn that the son was about to donate a kidney to his mother, who was likely months away from dying without it.

“I don’t know if that’s your moment or epiphany, but I thought, wow. Here is somebody giving something to somebody else,” said Woody, now 53. “I said, ‘I’d like to get involved in this.’”

LifeLink, the organ and tissue donation organization, didn’t have an opening. But it turned out a nonprofit that helped deliver the gift of sight did.

Nearly 32 years and thousands of corneal transplants later, Woody is president and CEO of the Lions Eye Institute for Transplant & Research in Ybor City, overseeing the combined eye bank, tissue recovery and ocular research center’s 150 employees. From offices in a grand old red brick cigar factory, they do recovery of donations, testing for suitability, matching with recipients and delivery to doctors for transplanting. A conversation with Woody about a job that helps people see.

So how does the donation process work?

The majority of our donations are from people on the donor registry. You go down to the DMV, you’ve moved or your license has expired, one of the questions they’ll ask is if you want to be an organ donor.

If (a deceased person’s) name is not in the database, we make a call to the family: The reason I’m calling is to offer your family the option of eye donation.

We have a couple hundred patients on the waiting list at any time. Usually within three to five days from a death, it’s transplanted. (Donations, he said, can be stored up to 14 days.)

What are you looking for? The cornea? The whole eye?

It’s both. The cornea for transplant. We also look for the whole eye, which is invaluable for research (on conditions including macular degeneration and glaucoma.)

My research families are just as excited as our donor families … what if the donation I’ve given will help cure this?

What’s the most common question you get?

The number one question: If I have brown eyes, would I have a green eye (after corneal transplant surgery?) The answer is no. You would have the same eye color as you had pre-surgery.

Imagine your cornea is the crystal on your watch — not the face, the crystal cover. The clear portion is the cornea.

Does an eye donated in Florida stay in Florida?

We try to put our donors back in the local community. If we do not have a recipient there, we go nationwide. If we do not have a home there, we go international.

Laboratory specialist Christine Nguyen holds up two donated corneas at the Lions Eye Institute for Transplant & Research.
Laboratory specialist Christine Nguyen holds up two donated corneas at the Lions Eye Institute for Transplant & Research. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
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Why is it called the Lions Club?

The Lions Club were really a bunch of businessmen. Hence the name: They didn’t call themselves the Squirrels — they were a bunch of successful businessmen who wanted to give back.

They had a meeting. The guest speaker they invited was Helen Keller. That was the impetus. Here is someone born blind, deaf and mute, and look what she was able to do.

Can you imagine if she were alive today … now a couple of million members across the world, and she was part of that?

How did the pandemic affect what Lions Eye does?

One of the restrictions nationwide was ambulatory surgery centers, where most all corneal transplants were done ... so unfortunately we had to decline donations. They cut down on all elective surgeries. Transplants were even limited. We didn’t know what we didn’t know, across the nation or across the world

A lot of companies were letting people go. We paid our employees 75 percent of their salary even though they couldn’t work. We knew the value they had. We knew the ramp-up would take months or even years if we lost their talent. We had 100 percent of our staff come back.

Talk a little about how you work.

The first week of every employee’s (job), I spend 30 minutes to an hour with them. Get to know me, I get to know them. Every single employee.

Probably 20 years ago I interviewed a lady — she’s still with us — she kept smiling. Is there something on my face, is my hair messed up? She said to me she’s never met the CEO of a company she’s worked for.

(Lions Eye recently acquired the Seattle-based SightLife, which has about 150 employees.)

I don’t like the role of an absentee CEO, so I will be in Seattle one week a month.

Are you from Tampa? Where did you go to school?

I believe I’m fifth generation, raised in North Tampa, the Lake Magdalene area. I went to Chamberlain (High), to Erwin Vocational school. About four years ago, I finished the Harvard Business School Advanced Management Program.

Have Americans’ attitudes toward these kinds of donations changed over the decades you’ve been doing this?

They definitely have. The thoughtfulness of our society, it just overwhelms me. People don’t realize over 50% of the people in the United States (and in Florida) are registered to be donors. There’s no political side to it. It’s apolitical.

You’ve suggested we could switch to an opt-out program so anyone who gets a license is an organ donor unless they specifically opt out. What’s been the response?

It has gotten a little bit of steam. We are already showing that 50% of the population believes in it. If we were at 20%, that would be a hard ask.

But in a very short period of time, I believe, with the wonderful transplant programs we have in our country, the waiting list could be eliminated.

What do you do when you’re not advocating for eyes?

I like to read. I like to work out. I have two Weimaraners, Nola and Jackson, both adopted. I’ve never purchased a dog. Every dog I’ve every adopted I believe knows you’ve done this for them. They have a bigger heart. They look at you and they know.

I have a swimming pool and (Nola and Jackson) are in there all the time.

How do you like working in Ybor City?

We are in an old cigar factory. Our building was built 1907. I love it. It’s a stunning building inside. Amazing employees, amazing cause.