Once he witnessed an incredible gift. Today he is the CEO of Lions Eye of Tampa.

In 1989, Jason Woody was about to graduate as a surgical technician. During his last rotation at Tampa General Hospital, he saw a mother and her adult son together in a hospital room. They were holding hands.

Woody would learn that the son was about to donate a kidney to his mother, who was probably months away from dying without him.

“I don’t know if this is your moment or an epiphany, but I thought, wow. Here’s someone giving something to someone else,” said Woody, now 53. year. “I said, ‘I would like to get involved in this’.”

LifeLink, the organ and tissue donation organization, had no opening. But it turns out that a nonprofit that helped provide the gift of sight did.

Nearly 32 years and thousands of corneal transplants later, Woody is President and CEO of the Lions Eye Institute for Transplant & Research in Ybor City, overseeing the combined eye bank, tissue recovery and center’s 150 staff. eye research. From the offices of a large old red-brick cigar factory, they collect donations, test their suitability, match recipients, and deliver them to doctors for transplant. A conversation with Woody about a job that helps people see.

So how does the donation process work?

The majority of our donations come from people on the donor registry. You go down to the DMV, you moved or your license has expired, one of the questions they will ask you is if you want to be an organ donor.

If the name (of a deceased person) is not in the database, we call the family: the reason I am calling is to offer your family the possibility of donating eyes.

We have a few hundred patients on the waiting list at any given time. Usually within three to five days of a death, it is transplanted. (Donations, he said, can be kept for up to 14 days.)

What are you looking for? The cornea? The whole eye?

It’s both. The cornea to be transplanted. We also search the whole eye, which is invaluable for research (on conditions such as macular degeneration and glaucoma.)

My research families are just as excited as our donor families…what if my donation helps cure this?

What is the most common question you receive?

Question number one: If I have brown eyes, will I have green eyes (after a corneal transplant?) The answer is no. You would have the same eye color as before the operation.

Imagine your cornea is the crystal of your watch – not the face, the crystal cover. The clear part is the cornea.

Does an eye given in Florida stay in Florida?

We try to put our donors back into the local community. If we don’t have a recipient there, we go nationwide. If we don’t have a home there, we go international.

Laboratory specialist Christine Nguyen holds two corneas donated to the Lions Eye Institute for Transplant & Research. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Track trends affecting the local economy

Track trends affecting the local economy

Subscribe to our free Business by the Bay newsletter

We’ll break down the latest business and consumer news and information you need to know every Wednesday.

You are all registered!

Want more of our free weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s start.

Explore all your options

Why is it called the Lions Club?

The Lions Club was truly a group of businessmen. Hence their name: they weren’t called the Squirrels, they were a group of successful businessmen who wanted to give back.

They had a meeting. The guest speaker was Helen Keller. It was the impulse. Here’s a person born blind, deaf, and mute, and look what they could do.

Can you imagine if she was alive today…now a few million members around the world, and she was one of them?

How has the pandemic affected what Lions Eye does?

One of the nationwide restrictions was on outpatient surgery centers, where most corneal transplants were performed…so we unfortunately had to refuse donations. They reduced all elective surgeries. Transplants were even limited. We didn’t know what we didn’t know, across the country or across the world

A lot of companies let people go. We paid our employees 75% of their salary even if they could not work. We knew the value they had. We knew that ramping up would take months or even years if we lost their talent. We brought back 100% of our staff.

Talk a bit about how you work.

The first week of each employee (job), I spend 30 minutes to an hour with them. Get to know me, I get to know them. Every employee.

Probably 20 years ago I interviewed a lady — she’s still with us — she kept smiling. Is there anything on my face, is my hair messy? She told me she had never met the CEO of a company she worked for.

(Lions Eye recently acquired Seattle-based SightLife, which has about 150 employees.)

I don’t like the role of an absentee CEO, so I’ll be in Seattle one week a month.

Are you from Tampa? Where did you go to school?

I believe I am fifth generation, raised in North Tampa, the Lake Magdalene area. I went to Chamberlain (High), Erwin Vocational school. About four years ago, I graduated from Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Program.

Has the attitude of Americans towards these kinds of donations changed over the decades you’ve been doing this?

They certainly have. The thoughtfulness of our society overwhelms me. People don’t realize that over 50% of people in the US (and Florida) are registered donors. There is no political side. It is apolitical.

You suggested that we could move on to an opt-out program for anyone who obtains a license to be an organ donor unless they expressly object. What was the response?

He took a little steam. We already show that 50% of the population believes in it. If we were at 20%, it would be difficult.

But in a very short time, I believe, with the wonderful transplant programs we have in our country, the waiting list could be eliminated.

What do you do when you’re not pleading for the eyes?

I like to read. I like to work. I have two Weimaraners, Nola and Jackson, both adopted. I have never bought a dog. I think all the dogs I’ve adopted know you did this for them. They have a bigger heart. They are watching you and they know.

I have a swimming pool and (Nola and Jackson) are there all the time.

Do you like working in Ybor City?

We are in an old cigar factory. Our building was built in 1907. I love it. It is a beautiful building inside. Incredible employees, an incredible cause.