TAMPA — Four times a week, an alarm clock rouses Jerry and Marie Woody at the ungodly hour of 3:30 a.m.
The couple dress quickly and skip breakfast. It takes them 15 minutes to get to the Lions Eye Institute in Ybor City. Marie jumps out and returns with an inch-thick foam cooler marked “perishable” and “medical emergency” that she gingerly places in the back seat. Soon they’re headed to everywhere from Mount Dora to Naples. Jerry always drives. There’s no stopping.
The precious cargo in the cooler are corneas harvested from donors after they die. They’re used for corneal transplants — keratoplasty — to restore vision in those suffering from conditions such as glaucoma, damaged eye tissue or complications from cataract surgeries.
Jerry Woody has spent two decades driving about 700,000 miles across Florida to deliver what he calls the “gift of sight” — more than 7,000 corneas. Marie began accompanying her husband four years ago to help after the cartilage in his knees wore out.
Their trip on March 3 started the same way, but everything felt different.
The cornea in the cooler that Marie carefully placed in the back seat came from their daughter.
A family tradition
Established in 1973, the Lions Eye Institute in Ybor services 61 of Florida’s 67 counties, supplying corneas for 10,000 eye transplant recipients each year, said CEO Jason Woody.
Its parent organization was launched by a social club for businessmen who started fundraising for the blind and visually impaired after famed blind and deaf disability advocate Helen Keller called on members to help at a convention in 1925.
Now the institute has 15 centers across the United States. The Tampa center is its largest eye bank, Jason Woody said. That’s in part because about 50 percent of Florida adults are registered as organ donors, he said.
The cornea is the transparent front part of the eye that covers the iris and pupil. They are typically removed from donors within eight hours of death. They can be stored at about 38 degrees Fahrenheit for up to 14 days but are typically transplanted within 10 days. The nonprofit also sends corneas to countries such as Mexico and Honduras, and recently dispatched more than $30,000 worth free of charge to Ukraine.
The institute’s technicians cut the corneas to fit donors. Once delivered, a surgeon will cut out the patient’s damaged or diseased cornea — an area roughly the size of a small button — and then stitch in the donated cornea. The stitches will be removed when the patient heals.
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Donating corneas is a Woody family tradition.
When Jason Woody’s grandmother, Elizabeth Rees, died at the age of 93 she was considered too old to donate her corneas for a transplant. So she donated them for medical research.
His younger sister, Jennifer Hopkins, also donated her corneas for research after she died of brain cancer two years ago.
“What I hear from families is it does bring you a sense of comfort,” he said.
It was 20 years ago when Jason Woody thought his dad, Jerry, would make a great courier. His father loved driving and still has three street rods at home.
Jerry has been driving for so long he has his routine down pat. He knows when he’s close enough to Fort Myers to pick up Gator Country 101.9 FM on his radio, the couple’s favorite country and western radio station.
“He had a passion for helping people,” Jason said. “It doesn’t make them a ton of money but they enjoy it and the purpose of what they do.”
‘That final ride’
Krissy Kern was Marie Woody’s daughter from her first marriage. She was 8 when Marie and Jerry began dating in 1975. They married two years later. Jerry quickly became like a father to the girl.
A single mom to two grown girls, Krissy, 55, was a broker for a mortgage company and lived in Plant City. She suffered a heart attack Feb. 27 and died in her home, Marie said. Krissy had become a grandmother just two weeks before. Marie said her daughter was warm and affectionate. She loved going to the beach and to Disney parks. She collected and traded Disney character pins: “She just loved everyone and anyone she met, she hugged.”
Like the rest of the family, Krissy was a registered donor. Days after her death, Jason learned that Krissy’s corneas had been approved for donation.
Donations are allocated to patients based on a list maintained by hospitals and doctors. One of her corneas went to a patient in Clearwater. The other was for a patient at a Mount Dora doctor’s office that the couple often delivers to.
Jason went back and forth in his head about whether to ask Jerry and Marie to make the trip. He decided they might be upset if they found out they had been deprived of playing a part in their daughter’s final act.
“Knowing them and how much they care about what we do and how much they loved my sister,” Jason said, “something told me they would want to be part of that final ride.”
He asked Marie if she wanted to deliver her daughter’s cornea. Marie said she looked at her husband and asked if that was OK.
“I didn’t know what to say as I started crying,” she said. “He said that would be fine.”
Final act of kindness
Jerry was on compassionate leave and hadn’t worked since Krissy died. When the couple, both 79, set out on March 3, it had been four days since Krissy passed.
When Marie carried her daughter’s cornea to the car, she thought about how passionate Krissy was about being a donor. She carried a donor card and it was designated on her driving license.
“I felt good,” Marie said. “I knew we were going to help someone see again.”
The couple was quiet on the nearly two-hour trip to Mount Dora, lost in their thoughts. They made the trip in Krissy’s burgundy Honda Civic.
“We didn’t say much of anything,” Marie said. “It was very sad. It was hard to believe this has really happened to her at such a young age.”
At the doctor’s office, Marie told the receptionist the story of Krissy. Then she handed over the cooler, her daughter’s final act of kindness to help a complete stranger.
She wishes she could tell the recipient about Krissy, too.
“I felt sort of happy and I was crying,” she said. “It finalized everything. I knew my daughter would have been happy.”
Want to become a donor?
For more details about corneal donations, contact the Lions Eye Institute at 813-289-1200 or at lionseyeinstitute.org or sign up to become an organ, tissue and eye donor at donatelifeflorida.org. Those with iPhones can become a donor using the Health app using these instructions.