Why that ‘harmless’ flashing light in your eyes could be a warning of sudden blindness (and if you’re short-sighted, you’re more at risk!)
Delay in diagnosis: Gill Hudson needed a total of five operations to save her vision
Boxing Day evening, 2016. I’m upstairs in the bathroom trying to blink away a mildly irritating blob of sleep in my left eye. I peer at myself in the mirror, tissue in hand, ready to wipe the blob away.
That’s strange. There doesn’t seem to be anything there at all. I blink again. Nothing. So why can I still sense a small shadow in the corner of my eye?
I shake my head from side to side, then relax. It’s only the tip of my nose hoving into view. You idiot. It’s just a bit weird I’ve never noticed that before. Back downstairs. Another glass of pinot? Don’t mind if I do! What a lovely Christmas we’ve had!
The next morning and it’s my turn to make the tea. I stretch and yawn, and am just heaving myself out of bed when a cold ball of fear lands in my stomach. I have lost a third of the sight in my left eye.
It’s as though someone started to pull down a rollerblind but got distracted halfway through and left it hanging there.
I turn to David. It’s hard to keep my voice steady. ‘Husband, we have a problem.’
Just 30 minutes later, we are sitting in the waiting room of the local NHS eye hospital. How can I possibly have an eye problem when only last month I had my annual check-up at the opticians?
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Maybe I’ve had a stroke? From the way my heart is pounding right now, I might be about to have one anyway.
It turns out I was wrong about those odd flashing lights I’d been seeing for the past couple of months. They had nothing to do with the relatively benign epiretinal membrane condition (where a thin layer of fibrous tissue forms on the surface of the retina, the light sensitive area at the back of the eye) I’d previously been alerted to.
In fact, flashing lights, or an increase in floaters, can be warning signs of imminent retinal detachment, so need to be checked out immediately. Sure enough, my left retina has kicked off in quite a major way.
But I ever-so-slightly relax at the diagnosis. At least this is a condition I’ve heard of, which makes it less scary. I assume it’s a relatively routine condition, and sortable.
I assume wrongly.
The NHS advises seeing an optician urgently, going to A&E or calling 111 if you have: – dots or lines suddenly appearing in your vision, flashes of light in your vision or a dark shadow
If the retina develops a hole or a tear, fluid within the eye starts to leak through the retinal layers, causing the retina to detach.
And if you’re not operated on — and quickly — you can go blind. With symptoms like mine you do not book in to see your GP or opticians for next week. You get yourself straight to an eye hospital or A&E. Like now.
I know none of this at the time. All I am told is that my retina is badly torn — a grand total of four tears — and that an operation is necessary. Trouble is, because this has happened over Christmas there’s no one around to do it.
The one surgeon I (briefly) get to talk to tells me that because my condition is ‘semi-urgent’ they’ll try to get me into another hospital in a few days’ time.
‘Semi-urgent? What the hell does that mean? What’s the jeopardy here?’ That’s what I should have asked, but I’m so stunned by what’s happened that I simply nod numbly, go back home and try to distract myself until the operation can be done.
By the time it takes place — four days later — my sight has got noticeably worse. The rollerblind is now two thirds of the way down and I’m really scared.
I am also not remotely prepared for what happens next. I didn’t know that, after using a laser to seal the tears in your retina, they pump your eye with gas to push the retina back into place.
You then have to spend seven days in a very specific position — depending on where the original tears were — all day and all night, with only ten minutes respite an hour. And as most of those ten minutes are taken up with administering an endless rota of eye drops, there’s little time for eating, weeing, washing or anything else.
I have to lie on my left side the entire time. This is a crucial stage in helping the retina reattach, but who knew that lying down could be so hard? Overnight, I’ve gone from action woman to couch potato, and my anxiety levels are somewhere up in the roof rafters. I’m struggling physically, too.
By the end of the week my left ear is blistering with the relentless pressure, and my hips ache so much I want to cry. So I do.
My eye is still bloody and swollen and my sight downright alarming. The nearest I can get to conveying what it’s like is to take a Christmas snowglobe, complete with bobbing fluid level, and I tell David to hold it up to his eye. He stares through it for a moment and then quietly puts it down.
Fact: Retinal detachment can happen at any age, but people who are short-sighted are more at risk, possibly because their retinas are more fragile
But even once my interminable week is over, life still doesn’t get back to normal.
I can’t drive until the gas bubble bouncing around in my eye has finally shrunk to nothing, which takes weeks. I can’t go to the gym as it would raise my blood pressure and might cause my retina to detach again. I can’t swim because of the risk of infection. I can’t do anything much at all, in fact, other than walk rather carefully as the bubble has reduced my vision to an almighty blur.
Now I’m almost entirely reliant on my right eye and am finding it hard to judge depth of field.
I’m also concerned about a persistent grey patch in the middle of my vision in the left eye. I mention it at my check-up a week later. ‘Oh, it takes ages for your sight to settle down’, I’m told.
But there’s a niggling worry, so I ask again at another check-up two weeks further down the line. This time I am told, baldly, that the macula — the centre of the retina, where the vision is at its sharpest — has detached. The words: ‘There is irreversible damage, I can’t give you your sight back’, come as a profound shock.
Friends find it hard to know how to respond. I get that; it’s not easy. Even so, I could have done without some of these: ‘Oh no! I knew someone else that happened to. Lost her sight completely. Couldn’t cope at all. Killed herself.’
‘Poor you! Your eyes! Of all the things you dread, going blind is the worst, isn’t it? I couldn’t bear it if I were you. It’s my biggest nightmare!’
My friend Sue drives over to help cheer me up. As we head off for a walk a small grey blob suddenly appears in the top left-hand corner of my left eye…
We head straight to the eye hospital and although the doctors initially think my eye is ok, I know — I really, really know — there is a problem. Sure enough, on a second look they see it: just six weeks after the operation my retina has redetached.
This time no one is going to fob me off with ‘semi-urgent’. It’s bloody urgent. Am I prepared to go further afield to Oxford, a 45- minute drive away? Frankly, I’d go to the Outer Hebrides if there was someone there who could operate at short notice. And so the ghastly process kicks off again.
Fast forward 18 months: I’ve now had five operations on my left eye: two retinal reattachments; a cataract operation (a direct consequence of the gas-bubble treatment); an epiretinal membrane peel to sharpen my vision; and eye-muscle surgery to help correct a 30 degree tilt in vision as a result of my retina reattaching at the wrong angle.
Despite all this, my sight, although much improved, is only partially restored, almost certainly because of the initial delay in recognising the symptoms and in having the operation.
SIGNS TO WATCH FOR
Retinal detachment can happen at any age, but people who are short-sighted are more at risk, possibly because their retinas are more fragile.
Another risk factor is having had cataract surgery.
The NHS advises seeing an optician urgently, going to A&E or calling 111 if you have:
– Dots or lines (floaters) suddenly appearing in your vision or these suddenly increase in number.
– Flashes of light in your vision.
– A dark shadow or ‘curtain’ moving across your vision.
And the question remains: what made my retina detach in the first place? No one can give me a clear answer, but the more questions I ask, the more the pieces of the jigsaw come together.
The average risk of retinal detachment is pretty low — about one in 10,000, — although it increases with age to about one in 5,000. But there’s one clear additional risk factor: myopia — short sightedness. And I’ve been short-sighted since childhood.
The more myopic you are, the more stretched the eyeball becomes — egg shaped rather than round — and the greater the chance of the retina pulling away from the back of the eye. The lifetime risk of retinal detachment for those with severe myopia can be as high as one in 20.
What’s concerning is that the incidence of myopia is increasing — there’s a strong link between spending too much time indoors and on screens, and not enough time outdoors in brighter light, with a more varied field of vision.
I might not have grown up with tablets and smartphones, but as a child I certainly used to sit in my bedroom for hours reading book after book. And in my career as a magazine editor I sat in front of screens all day, every day. For years. It all stacks up…
But how could I not have realised just how serious my condition was? Me, of all people. Informed, responsible, conscientious me, who diligently visits the dentist and the optician, and, now also stoically performs the bowel cancer test, which arrived along with my 60th-birthday cards.
I’m mildly comforted to know that I’m not alone. Despite the rapidly increasing prevalence of myopia, public awareness of eye conditions seems shockingly low.
In one of my many forays online I find a sobering report confirming that the ‘vast majority’ of those with short sight simply don’t know what the symptoms of retinal detachment are or how serious the consequences can be.
I’ve been told my other eye now has a higher chance of detachment too, but as there are no preventative measures, I have to just get on with my life. At least if there is a next time then I’ll know what to look out for. Literally.
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