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The Graduate School

G-1 Communications Building
Box 353770
Seattle, Washington 98195-3770

Phone: 206.543.5900
Fax: 206.685.3234

Chief Operating Officer of SightLife(TM)

Bernardino Iliakis

Chief Operating Officer of SightLife™

Education

  • Master's degree in Health Administration, UW
  • Bachelor's degree in Zoology, UW

Career path

  • Eye Bank Technician, Technical Director, and now Chief Operating Officer, SightLife™

Current work

Bernie has spent the bulk of his career working for SightLife, a Seattle-based organization with a mission of eliminating corneal blindness. Corneal blindness is a condition in which the cornea—the clear part, about the thickness of a credit card, that covers the surface of your eye and lets in light—has been damaged by infection, injury or disease specific defects.

"It's like if a window is clouded over, you can replace the window pane, and then light comes through," Bernie said.

Through a process called eye banking, SightLife recovers eye tissue and provides it to surgeons who perform corneal transplants in more than 30 countries. As chief operating officer for the non-profit organization since 2003, Bernie oversees the core business, which is the recovery, evaluation, and distribution of these donated tissues, as well as the process of the donation education and donor family interactions. He also helps to develop internal leaders and innovative lab techniques, and travels extensively to connect with eye surgeons worldwide.

The UW's advantage

Bernie always thought he would attend graduate school after obtaining a Zoology degree from the UW. Nearly a decade later, with encouragement from SightLife's chief executive officer, he entered the UW's Executive Master's of Health Administration program. The flexible course schedule allowed him to continue working while attending school, where he found "world class experts and faculty in almost every field of healthcare management," he said. "UW's MHA program is the clear leader in the region, if not the country."

When Bernie graduated from the program in 2005, he had a broader perspective on health care overall, sharper management skills and better awareness of allocating resources and maximizing his organization's efforts.

Of the approximately 100 people who work for SightLife, more than 20 current employees are UW graduates, and the organization has hired dozens more over the years. Most are life science or pre-med majors seeking laboratory, surgical and medical experience as a stepping stone to medical school.

Curing blindness at home and abroad

As SightLife's longest-tenured employee, Bernie has seen the company through times of great expansion. When he started as a technician in 1995, just one year out of his undergraduate program, the eye bank was part of the UW, located in the basement of the UW Medical Center, and provided about 800 corneas per year. Now SightLife is an independent non-profit, and the number of corneas it supplies has multiplied almost sevenfold.

Of the some 80 eye banks in the United States, SightLife has the largest geographic area and provides the greatest volume of transplant tissue, which comes from people who have consented to organ donation when they die. SightLife's primary service areas are Washington State, Northern Idaho, Montana, Alaska, and Northern California.

The organization is also expanding its international work. Its newest effort, a global eye bank development division, is creating sustainable eye banks in the developing world, where the need for transplants is far greater. According to the World Health Organization, 10 million people worldwide have bilateral corneal blindness, and 90 percent of them live in the developing world.

In the United States, there's generally no waiting list for patients in need of corneal transplants, but that's not typically the case overseas. During two recent trips to India, one of the hardest-hit areas for corneal blindness, Bernie has witnessed firsthand the obstacles that people with the ailment encounter—the long waiting lists to see doctors, much less receive a transplant; the dangers of navigating through substandard living conditions, crowded streets, and traffic without sight.

"Here restored sight is life enhancing," Bernie said. "There it is essentially lifesaving."

Advice to future graduate students

"If you have the desire and ability, graduate school is a 'must do,'" Bernie said. "Graduate education allows you to attain that next cognitive level and a broader view of your profession, your society, even your personal life."

Photo by Anne Broache