'Knights of Sight': Detroit Lakes Lions to host Tuesday presentation on importance of cornea, eye donation

Concordia College senior Kailee Vigen, who was once a cornea transplant recipient, will be one of the speakers at the event set for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Detroit Lakes.

Kailee Vigen.jpeg
Concordia College senior Kailee Vigen, who is a native of Thief River Falls, was the recipient of a cornea transplant as a child. She will be one of the speakers at a special "Lions Gift of Sight" presentation set for this Tuesday, April 18 at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Detroit Lakes.
Contributed / Detroit Lakes Lions Club

DETROIT LAKES — She wasn't even two years old when it happened, but the consequences for Thief River Falls native Kailee Vigen would last a lifetime.

"I was about a year and nine months old ... it was my second Christmas," she recalled. "I fell into our family's Christmas tree — it was an artificial tree. In that fall, one of the tree needles completely punctured my right eye.

"I didn't really have a reaction to it. I didn't cry, I just walked away like nothing had even happened," she said. "My parents were like, 'Ok, she seems fine,' and we just went about our business."

Unknown to her, or her family at the time, a piece of that needle had also remained lodged in her eye. A couple of days later, young Kailee showed some symptoms that appeared similar to pink eye, so her parents brought her to see an optometrist for treatment.

"Nothing worked," she said of the initial treatment efforts. "We ended up going to Grand Forks to get another look at it. We were confused; it had gotten worse, and (the eye) was swollen shut."


Upon further examination, the needle fragment was found in her eye, and the surgery to remove it was performed the same day. The doctors who performed the surgery told her parents, "She's little. This will heal really fast." But it didn't.

"It was supposed to heal quickly and seamlessly, but it had only gotten worse," she recalled. "That was the beginning of years of trying to figure out what was going on."

Her parents took Kailee to doctors from Grand Forks to the Twin Cities to Rochester, looking for answers — without success. "My eye was pretty much destroyed," she said.

Kailee was six years old when she went to see Dr. Elizabeth Davis at Minnesota Eye Consultants in Bloomington — and it was Dr. Davis who first suggested a cornea transplant.

"A transplant is not ideal for a six-year-old," she said. "But Dr. Davis said there's no way to fix this; there's so much damage to the eye we can't do anything else (except a transplant)."

So they put Kailee on the transplant list — and on Oct. 23, 2007, she got it.

"Dr. Davis did the surgery," she said, adding that she still sees her "to this day."

Though she really only saw colors out of that eye at first, Vigen got Lasik surgery in 2016, "and they were able to reshape my cornea to (look more like) a normal person's. I now see shapes, which is amazing. I never saw that before."


Though she is still considered legally blind in her right eye, Vigen says she is extremely grateful to be able to see as well as she does. Her vision in her left eye is good enough that she is legally able to drive, and she is about to graduate from Concordia College in Moorhead. After taking a "gap year" off, she plans to return to college to obtain her medical degree.

Her future career path? "I'm going into ophthalmology," she said. "It's so funny; I knew the day I met Dr. Davis that I wanted to be just like her. I have it in my kindergarten 'All About Me' book."

Vigen will be in Detroit Lakes this Tuesday and Wednesday, April 18-19, for a series of three presentations hosted by the Detroit Lakes Lions Club. The public is invited to attend the second event, a 6:30 p.m. Tuesday presentation on "The Gift of Sight" at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, located at 1400 Corbett Road in Detroit Lakes.

In addition to Vigen, there will also be two presenters from the Lions Gift of Sight eye bank, which is located at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities. Sean Poppoff, the eye bank's executive director, will be making the trip to Detroit Lakes this week along with Patty Stockdale, their manager of partner and community relations.

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Sean Poppoff is the executive director of the Lions Gift of Sight eye bank at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. He will be one of the guest speakers at a special "Gift of Sight" presentation hosted by the Detroit Lakes Lions Club this Tuesday, April 18, 2023, at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Detroit Lakes.
Contributed / Detroit Lakes Lions Club

What does an eye bank do?

"We are a full-service eye bank," Poppoff said in a recent interview, conducted via Zoom. "We are accredited by the Eye Bank Association of America, and regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

"We recover ocular tissue from recently passed individuals," he added, noting that they take donations from Minnesota as well as some parts of North Dakota.

To be nationally accredited, the Minnesota-based eye bank has to follow a pretty strict set of guidelines for collecting that ocular tissue. In order to properly preserve the cornea, it must be placed in preservation media within a set period of time. "From that point going forward we have 14 days to provide that tissue for transplant," Poppoff said, adding that tissue used in transplants cannot be frozen.


Stockdale explained that preservation media consists of a small, plastic container with a screw top lid that contains a liquid that will hold the tissue in stasis.

"We do in situ recovery," Poppoff said, explaining that means "we recover the whole cornea, the cornea only, and once it's in the (preservation) media we bring it back to our office in St. Paul and it goes into a moderated refrigeration system."

Stockdale noted that while cornea transplants are most common, and have a 95% success rate, there are some other parts of the eye that may be viable for transplant use, such as the sclera (the white part of the eye). "There are some types of reconstructive surgeries where soft (eye) tissue is needed," she added.

Before a transplant can be done, the donated cornea or other eye tissue needs to go through "a thorough screening, with very specific questions, in specific order," Stockdale said.

While corneas do not contain blood vessels, and therefore do not require the type of blood or genetic matching that other types of organ donation might, they can still be ruled ineligible for transplant due to "certain types of cancers, a diagnosis of dementia, HIV ... and unfortunately, COVID-19 infections, both current and recent," Stockdale added. "This has had a significant impact on eye donation in the last three years."

But even when the donated corneas and/or eye tissue are deemed unsuitable for transplant purposes, they can still be used for research — something that is desperately needed, Poppoff noted.

"We take the research mission of our eye bank just as seriously as our transplant mission," he said, adding that while a transplant can restore the vision of one or two people, research can prevent vision loss or restore vision for hundreds, thousands, or more.

"Research is not a consolation prize (for donors)," Stockdale added. "Research tissue goes such a long way to providing cures to things like age-related macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma ... we help further that mission by recovering tissue specifically for research."


Why are the Lions known as the 'Knights of Sight'?

In 1925, Helen Keller approached the Lions at their international convention and appealed to them for their help and to become “knights of the blind in this crusade against darkness.” Since then, Lions all over the world have worked tirelessly to find causes and cures for any type of eye disease.

"Our motto is, we're the 'Knights of Sight,'" says Detroit Lakes Lions Club member Jim Granger, who is one of the organizers for Tuesday's event.

Providing the gift of sight to as many people as possible is the mission of Lions Club International, which is why they are referred to as "The Knights of Sight."
Contributed / Detroit Lakes Lions Club

The University of Minnesota has partnered with the Minnesota Lions to combat blindness. It currently houses one of the largest eye banks in the nation. This means that Minnesota is a gatekeeper for supplying the nation with thousands of corneas for transplant and eyes for research every year.

The Lions provided funds for a number of projects at the University of Ophthalmology and Visual Neurosciences including the Lions Research Building, the Children’s Lions Eye Clinic, the Macular Degeneration Center, and is currently providing funding for state-of-the-art surgical equipment.

It was a Lion that developed new screening software for cornea inspection. This process had been done one by one in a labor-intensive way until this Lion saw a need. He created software that would scan the tissue to see if it was viable for transplant, saving countless hours.

There is no age limit on donations. Don’t assume you won’t qualify. The oldest Lions Gift of Sight donor was 105 years old. There are very few rule-outs due to medical advancements. The eye bank will take donors for transplants up to 80 years old, and researchers will take donors up to 100 years old.

In Detroit Lakes and surrounding communities, the Lions sponsor vision screenings for children from pre-kindergarten age through high school seniors. "Since we first started in 2017, we've done over 18,000 screenings in Becker County," says Granger.

While the machine that the Lions use for spot vision screenings can detect problems with vision clarity, "it can't catch color blindness or depth perception," Granger said, adding that the Lions are experimenting with ways to expand their services to include those types of vision impairment as well.


In addition, the local Lions Club partners with clubs in Mexico to bring free vision clinics to residents of Cabo San Lucas and Mazatlan, and is looking to expand that mission as well.

If you go

What: "The Gift of Sight" presentation, featuring Minnesota Lions eye bank director Sean Poppoff and cornea transplant recipient Kailee Vigen
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 18
Where: St. Luke's Episcopal Church, 1400 Corbett Road, Detroit Lakes
Who: Hosted by the Detroit Lakes Lions Club
How: This presentation is free and open to the public. All are welcome, but RSVPs are requested, by messaging the club via email at , on their web page at , or on their Facebook page . You can also call Jim Granger at 218-841-0277.

A reporter at Detroit Lakes Newspapers since relocating to the community in October 2000, Vicki was promoted to Community News Lead for the Detroit Lakes Tribune and Perham Focus on Jan. 1, 2022. She has covered pretty much every "beat" that a reporter can be assigned, from county board and city council to entertainment, crime and even sports. Born and raised in Madelia, Minnesota, she is a graduate of Hamline University, from which she earned a bachelor's degree in English literature (writing concentration). You can reach her at
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