By Barbara Pash
6:05 AM EST, December 31, 2013
The famed Tournament of Roses — an extravaganza of marching bands, equestrian units and, of course, the magnificent floral floats — kicks off on Wednesday. This year's parade will have a touch of Towson on the Donate Life Rose Parade Float, a decade-old tradition that honors deceased organ and tissue donors.
At an event earlier this month at Sheppard Pratt Health System, where Dr. Michael Edelstein was a member of the medical staff for nearly 30 years, his family created the floral portrait called a floragraph that will be shipped to parade organizers in Pasadena, Calif., and will hang on the float.
Edelstein, who died last year of a heart attack at the age of 66, was a triple board-certified practitioner of family medicine, psychiatry and geriatrics.
"For me, it was very emotional and bittersweet," Elaine Edelstein, his widow, a Cockeysville resident, said about the event.
While Edelstein knew that her late husband was a donor, she didn't know of what. As it turned out, Michael Edelstein had donated his cornea. By the time of the ceremony, they'd already been transplanted into two recipients, restoring their sight.
"I was happy that a part of him lives in someone else," Edelstein said.
Donate Life America, a national organization that raises awareness of organ and tissue donation, usually has about 75 floragraphs on a float. Each year since the Donate Life float began, TBI/Tissue Banks International has sponsored a floral portrait of a cornea donor.
Headquartered in Baltimore, TBI/Tissue Banks International is a nonprofit network of medical eye and tissue banks. More than 100,000 patients annually benefit from TBI. TBI is responsible for providing corneas for transplant, a procedure that involves recovering the corneas and assuring they are viable for transplantation.
"Donate Life has a relationship with TBI in each state," said Nancy Thrush, vice president of communications at TBI, who this year chose Edelstein for the floragraph honor.
Cornea disease is the fourth major cause of blindness in the U.S. after cataracts, retinal disease and glaucoma. The cornea is the outer, protective layer of the eye. When the cornea becomes clouded and dysfunctional, blindness results. The only remedy for corneal blindness is transplantation in which the recipient's diseased cornea is cut out and the donor's cornea is attached in its place.
Such an operation was possible as early as 1962, when the Medical Eyebank of Maryland, TBI's precursor, was founded. "Ophthalmologists started the effort to raise awareness that when a person passes on, they can donate their sight," Thrush said.
Unlike organ donations, which in Maryland are handled by the Living Legacy Foundation, practically anyone can be a cornea donor. The donor's vision does not matter. Donors can sign up at the state Motor Vehicle Administration when they get or renew their driver's license or online via the national registry that Donate Life maintains.
The campaign for cornea donors has been so successful that there is not a waiting list. Each year, more than 40,000 people in the U.S. regain their sight through a cornea transplant.
"One cornea donor can restore sight to two people. It's life-enhancing," Thrush said.
At the event, Dr. Robert Roca, vice president of medical affairs at Sheppard Pratt, announced that Sheppard Pratt is establishing an annual award for the medical staff after Edelstein.
"He was a very special person," Roca said. "I knew him as a terrific physician who cared deeply about his patients, and as a colleague and a friend. The theme of his life was tremendous generosity. This award exemplifies his humanitarian spirit."