CINDY REED Iowa Lions Eye Bank executive director leads team through innovative new procedures and organization methods.
For many people, gazing at a colorful sunset or studying the intricacies of a classic piece of art are effortless activities, done simply by opening one’s eyes.
For those with impaired or no vision, these activities cannot happen. But Dr. Cindy Reed is working to make sure that sight becomes a part of every person’s life.
Reed is the executive director of the Iowa Lions Eye Bank, a nonprofit organization affiliated with University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (UIHC), founded in 1955 by Dr. Alson Braley as a joint project of the UI Department of Ophthalmology and the Iowa Lions. Technicians recover cornea tissue donated from the deceased and send it to the eye bank, where it is screened for diseases or imperfections and then prepared for surgeons who will perform transplants.
Although Reed, who has held the position since August 2004, does not physically perform any operations herself, she leads the team of skilled professionals through administrative work, organization, motivation, and innovation. Last year was the eye bank’s best fiscal year ever as technicians recovered 1,011 corneas for transplant—300 more than the previous record.
The eye bank’s highly successful year helped Reed win a Board of Regents Staff Excellence Award. Reed, a Des Moines native, insists that even though the award was her own, the win never could have happened without her team at the eye bank.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever worked anywhere where everybody is so onboard with the mission and so willing to tackle the hard problems,” says Reed. “It’s not always comfortable and not always fun, but at the end of the day, everybody here pulls together because they want to restore sight. That’s what we do.”
Reed received two degrees from The University of Iowa (a BS in nursing in 1978 and an MA in education in 1981), worked as a nurse in behavioral health for 22 years, and has a great interest in alternative medicine. She says she never took a particular interest in visual sciences during that period, but she had a personal connection to the Iowa Lions Eye Bank. When her brother passed away, his eyes were donated to the eye bank. Reed’s mother always held on to the letter from a previous executive director, thanking her for the donation.
Now that she has been working in ophthalmology for five and a half years, Reed says the best thing about vision restoration is witnessing the impact she and her colleagues can have on a patient’s life.
“So many times in medicine you see people in crisis, when they can be at their worst,” says Reed. “We really get to see people when they’re at their best. We get to see the result of restoring a function that’s critical to somebody’s daily life.”
Since joining the team, Reed has helped the eye bank out of a deficit by implementing new medical procedures and by joining the Cornea Collaborative, a national group of eye banks devoted to improving each other’s situations, financial or otherwise. She also says it is very important to her to have fun at work, so she recently created a “Flying Monkey” staff award inspired by the Broadway play Wicked.
Among the many projects Reed has led was the creation of the Iowa Lions Donor Memorial and Healing Garden, a stone and plant area near the UIHC entrance. The garden commemorates more than 25,000 Iowans who have donated eyes, organs, and tissues throughout the eye bank’s 55-year history.
“We really designed [the garden] around the theme of hope, renewal, and transformation,” she says. “We hope that it serves as a place of reflection for anybody—visitors, patients, staff, students. We also hope that it encourages people to think about donation and how that can help others.”
Currently, the Iowa Lions Eye Bank is working on a new, very specialized method of cornea tissue preparation—the first of its kind in the United States. The new procedure would restore 20/40 vision to patients in just a few weeks, as opposed to three months with an older method. Additionally, Reed is “smoothing out the bugs” in the eye bank’s new database and developing leadership teams.
As she and her crew continue to find new ways to help the visually impaired, Reed says she is and always will be excited about her profession.
“In my opinion,” Reed says, “this is one of the few places in medicine where we can truly take a tragedy, which is somebody’s death, and turn it into something good for somebody else—the restoration of sight.”
Story by Jake Jensen; photo by Kirk Murray