Corneal graft operations have revolutionised the lives of many people with eye problems but more could be helped if more donors came forward.

Staff at a major donor centre in Sussex are trying to raise awareness of the need for further help.

Margaret Crowther has been living life to the full after having her sight restored with a corneal transplant.

She is one of dozens of patients in the South East to go through the operation this year and is delighted with the results.

Mrs Crowther, 80, from East Preston, near Littlehampton, is able to ride her bike again, watch TV, read books and potter around in the garden.

The pensioner encountered problems in the early Nineties when she developed cataracts in both eyes.

An operation on the left eye was successful but surgeons could do nothing for the right and she lost the sight from it.

Mrs Crowther had no further problems until last year when the sight in her left eye started to dim.

A consultant at Worthing Hospital carried out the graft operation and the difference was almost immediate.

Mrs Crowther said: "When I got home, the difference was amazing. I was able to read again and write letters.

"I had given up gardening because I couldn't properly see what I was doing but now I can get back out there."

The cornea is the clear, curved window at the front of the eye which covers the iris and the pupil. If it becomes damaged or cloudy, people develop problems and a transplant may be needed.

Conditions that make a corneal transplant necessary include irregularities on the surface of the cornea, such as ulcers or infection, damage or scarring or dense clouding of the corneal tissue which reduces vision.

A transplant will only be carried out if a person's vision cannot be corrected with medical treatment or contact lenses.

Corneal transplant tissue comes from people who have consented to their organs or tissue being used after their death.

Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead has an eye bank that covers Sussex and the South East. The first to be established in Britain, this year it celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Instigated by eye surgeon Sir Benjamin Ryecroft, its foundation dates back to the Second World War when pioneering plastic surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe treated airmen suffering severe burns. Many had damaged corneas.

Since the bank was set up, it has helped restore the vision of thousands of people of all ages.

But hundreds more are still waiting for transplant operations and eye bank co-ordinator Andrea Rowe says the number of donations is dropping.

In 1997, 340 corneas were donated, while in 2002 the figure went down to 222.

Mrs Rowe said: "Almost anyone can become an eye donor after death, as there are very few instances when a cornea is not suitable and there is no upper age limit.

"The fact someone wears glasses does not rule out their suitability as a donor. "There is no alternative to a donated human cornea so it literally means the difference between being able to see or not.

"I think some people may be concerned as to how those nearest to them might look if their corneas are removed after death but all donors are treated with dignity and respect. There is no disfigurement and funeral arrangements are not affected."

One of the bank's most famous donors was Lady Churchill, who died in December, 1972.

She was so impressed with the facilities and treatment patients received when she underwent a cataract operation at Queen Victoria Hospital, she decided to become a donor.

Sheraz Daya, director of the hospital's corneo-plastic unit and eye bank said: "Corneal donations provide a phenomenal gift of sight to those in tremendous need.

"The number of individuals needing corneal trans-plants continues to increase as a result of our current shortage.

"We very much appreciate the bequests we presently have and hope these will increase."

For more details about the eye bank and donation call Mrs Rowe on 01342 410210, ext 220.