At 10:25 a.m., a dark brown eye was removed from a man whose lids had closed for the last time. Five hours later, the orb was staring up at the ceiling from a stainless steel tray in an operating room with two blind patients — both waiting to give it a second life.
S.P.D. Siriwardana, 63, remained still under a white sheet as the surgeon delicately replaced the cornea that had gone bad in his right eye following a cataract surgery. Across the room, patient A.K. Premathilake, 32, waited for the sclera, the white of the eye, to provide precious stem cells and restore some vision after acid scalded his sight away on the job.
"The eye from this dead person was transplanted to my son," said A.K. Admon Singho, who guided Premathilake through the hall after the surgery. "He's dead, but he's still alive. His eye can still see the world."
This gift of sight is so common here, it's become an unwritten symbol of pride and culture for Sri Lanka, an island of about 20 million people located off the southern coast of India. Despite recently emerging from a quarter century of civil war, the country is among the world's largest cornea providers.
It donates about 3,000 corneas a year and has provided tissue to 57 countries over nearly a half century, with Pakistan receiving the biggest share, according to the nonprofit Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society. The organization began promoting eye donation decades ago, but has since faced allegations of mismanagement and poor quality standards.
The supply of corneas is so great in Sri Lanka that a new, state-of-the-art government eye bank opened last year, funded by Singapore donors. It has started collecting tissue from patients at one of the country's largest hospitals, hoping to add an additional 2,000 corneas to those already shipped abroad annually. Nearly 900,000 people have also signed up to give their eyes in death through the Eye Donation Society's longstanding eye bank.