Penetrating Keratoplasty (Full Thickness Corneal Transplant)

Disease and trauma to the cornea can reduce its brilliant clarity, resulting in visual loss. Corneal transplant surgery (known as a penetrating keratoplasty) replaces the existing cornea with one from a recently deceased donor. The recipient’s cornea is removed and a healthy donor cornea is sutured into place. In other words:

  • A round-shaped portion of the damaged cornea is removed.
  • A donor button of clear cornea is replaced.
  • The new cornea is sutured into place.

Final visual results are not known until after many months, and patients are asked to return to the office frequently during the first year.

Stitches may be removed gradually, as early as a few weeks after surgery. In some cases however, stitches may not be removed at all. (This is determined and discussed during the healing process). Glasses are prescribed as the new corneal transplant stabilizes, usually one year after surgery.

Obtaining a Donor Cornea from the Eye Bank

At present, the only source of corneal tissue is from donor tissue. The transplanted corneas come from a donor who has willed his or her cornea for transplantation, or whose family has donated the cornea after the donor’s death. It may be upsetting to look upon the dying patient as a source of replacement tissue, but for most families, the opportunity to give sight to another human is comforting.

All corneas are screened for HIV and Hepatitis, as well as other infectious diseases. The waiting period is usually about four-six weeks. Surgeries are tentatively scheduled with the hospital, however there will usually (a 70-80 % chance) be a cornea available on the day of surgery. If not, however, patients are rescheduled soon after their original date.

Before surgery

Blood samples, EKG, and/or chest X-rays are required (some testing depends upon your age and health status) to clear you for surgery.

The day before surgery

On the day before surgery, our office contacts patients to let them know if an appropriate donor has been found. If so, a nurse from the hospital informs patients in the late afternoon or early evening regarding what time to arrive for surgery. Patients are not allowed to eat or drink anything after midnight.

The day of surgery

Corneal transplant surgery is normally done on an outpatient basis and patients are at the hospital for at least 5 hours. All patients should have someone to drive them home.

A nurse interviews the patient about their general state of health and an anesthesiologist will screen you prior to surgery (most corneal transplant surgeries are performed under local anesthesia).

During surgery

If local anesthesia is used, the physician will inject medication around your eye that will temporarily prevent pain and movement. It will also block your vision during surgery. Sterile drapes will be placed to isolate the eye having the surgery and adequate ventilation will be provided.

If general anesthesia (less frequent) is used, patients awaken in the recovery room and will then be moved to a room in the hospital after an hour.

To assure that your donor cornea remains secure, very fine stitches (called sutures) will be placed around the outer edge of your cornea with the aid of a microscope.

A patch and protective shield are placed over the operated eye when surgery is complete.

After surgery

Patients stay in the hospital for at least an hour after surgery. They are able to walk to the bathroom with the assistance of the nursing personnel and may sit for meals.

Patients who had local anesthesia are able to resume their regular diet. Patients who had general anesthesia receive liquids for their first meal but are able to resume a regular diet the following day.

The day after surgery

The eye dressing will remain in place until the morning following the surgery when patients have their first post-operative appointment. The doctor will remove the patch and protective shield the next morning. Patients are permitted to wear glasses during the day, and a shield must be worn at night. One or the other should be worn at all times.

Eye pain following a corneal transplant is usually minimal. Antibiotic, dilating and steroid drops will be instilled to prevent infection and rejection of the donor cornea.

Post-transplant cornea care

Antibiotic and dilating drops will be prescribed for one month. Steroid drops may be prescribed for up to one year. Patients and their families are instructed on the proper techniques for instilling eye drops.

If you do not have enough eye medication at home, call us with the name of the medication and the phone number of your pharmacy. It is crucial that you receive every dose of your medication. Please plan ahead if your drops are running low. Avoid running out in the evening or on a weekend or holiday.

You may clean around your eye, but do not rub the eye. If there is crusting, use a clean, wet washcloth to gently wipe the eye once or twice a day. Never put the washcloth into the eye or use the same part of the washcloth twice. Avoid putting any pressure on the eye.

Over the following weeks, you should avoid strenuous activity that causes you to become red in the face, as straining increases pressure in the eye. If it is necessary to cough or sneeze, do so with your mouth open. Do not lift, push, or bend with your head lower than your heart.

Patients are allowed to return to the following activities unless otherwise instructed not to do so by the doctor:

• Patients may return to school or work if it does not involve strenuous activity or lifting.

• Pending the doctor’s advice, patients may drive a car if the corrected vision in the un-operated eye is 20/40 or better.

• Patients may shower – soap must be prevented from getting into the eye.

• Patients may shampoo their hair with their head tilted backwards.

• Patients may do light housework (do not lift, push, or bend with your head lower than your heart).

• Patients may read, watch TV, do needlework until the eye(s) become tired.

Patients are prohibited from doing the following until otherwise approved by the doctor:

• Participate in sports (until approved)

• Strain or do any lifting (any activity which may cause your face to turn red)

• Bend with your head lower than your heart

The Possibility of Corneal Rejection

Your corneal transplant will most likely be successful, however there is a possibility your body will reject the new cornea. Please click here to read more about the possibility of corneal rejection.