No eye doctor, but vision helps blind see Testimonial: Colleagues, friends set up foundation to continue the work of man who organized corneal transplant system worldwide.

November 01, 1997|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Frederick N. Griffith's story sounds like the kind of unlikely opera plot he loves.

Baltimore boy is a C student, gets polio, can't move, lives in an iron lung and becomes entranced with medicine. After a year, he recovers, becomes an A student, grows up to become a hospital manager, sees a great need and revolutionizes the disorganized system of making corneas available for transplant. He expands the scope nationally, then globally, and retires, mistakenly thought by many to be one of the world's great ophthalmologists.

In a climax to the story today, 450 friends will honor Griffith, 65, founder of the nonprofit Tissue Banks International (TBI), which includes Medical Eye Bank of Maryland. An international foundation will be announced in his name to continue his 30-year mission of helping the blind see.

"Frederick is so influential worldwide, some doctors think he's the finest corneal surgeon in the world," said Dr. Walter J. Stark, medical director of TBI and director of cornea and cataract services at the Johns Hopkins Wilmer Eye Institute.

Griffith is no doctor and never pretended to be one.

Despite a self-deprecating personality, he agreed to the "bravo" party, to be held at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel only if there would be only one toast. It will be given by old friend Dr. Alfred Sommer, dean of the School of Hygiene and Public Health at Hopkins.

More to his liking, Griffith said, is the foundation: "I am deeply grateful and honored."

About 300 donors have given more than $500,000 to the Frederick N. Griffith Foundation for the Advancement of Transplantation. It aims for $1 million by June for "new computers, refrigeration, instruments, packaging of tissues, training, education," said Kathleen C. Terlizzese, a TBI senior vice president.

The foundation is the 2-year-old idea of Bruce P. Sawyer, board chairman of TBI and executive vice president of Barton Cotton Inc.: "I saw the opportunity to celebrate his career and continue the mission in future years."

One thankful beneficiary of Griffith's work is Mark Edgar, 52, of Davidsonville. The graphics art specialist received cornea transplants in both eyes from donors and the eye bank here because of the progressive disease keratoconus.

"I couldn't see my wife, I couldn't read well, and I made terrible mistakes at work. The improved sight with new corneas was a phenomenal miracle. I could see again," he said.

Corneal problems blind millions worldwide.

The cornea is like the crystal on a watch. It protects the eye, admits light and bends the rays toward and through the pupil. It needs to be replaced when it clouds over because of diseases such as keratoconus or when damaged by trauma, chemical burns or degeneration.

In the mid-1960s, a very informal system known as the Medical Eye Bank of Maryland supplied corneas that were removed at the morgue and transplanted into patients within 18 hours.

Ophthalmologists said they desperately needed more corneas. Griffith, an administrator at the old Presbyterian Eye, Ear Nose and Throat Hospital, accepted the challenge and became head of the eye bank.

"Many people were signing donor forms to give corneas, but it didn't work," Griffith said.

"No one ever called the eye bank when someone died. People were dying every day in local hospitals. So we went to attending hospital physicians and asked for corneas when families permitted it.

"Overnight, we became the largest supplier of corneas in the country," Griffith said.

In 1975, state medical examiner Dr. Russell S. Fisher told Griffith: "Ted, I throw away a lot of eyes that come through my shop. Let's get a law passed so we can use them."

Griffith and others pushed for a law in Maryland allowing removal of corneas during autopsies performed after unexplained deaths there were no known objection by relatives. Similar laws were passed later in 22 states.

Things got busier as corneas became more plentiful.

Griffith created the first, and still the only, formal U.S. network of eye banks -- TBI -- in 1984, and directed it from his Park Avenue center, now at 815 Park Ave.

The network has grown to include 26 banks in the United States, some of which also recover bones, skin and heart valves. On any day, a computerized center here directs the recovery, processing and distribution of an average of 22 corneas throughout the country. Baltimore technicians collect about three corneas a day from local hospitals.

The network supplied 19 percent of the corneas for 46,000 U.S. transplants last year.

Griffith's remaining passion was to fill the need overseas.

He organized the International Federation of Eye Banks, which now has 39 banks sharing corneas and other tissues. TBI in Baltimore directs, monitors, inspects and assists the global network.

Stark, the surgeon and professor, sums up Griffith's legacy: "He has been the main driving force behind eye banking for the past 30 years. He began here, but he didn't stop in Baltimore. He organized the country, then the world."

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