By Guest Author/ Sue-Ellen Sanders
I have glaucoma. My mom had it and she used eye drops for 40 years. I remember her line-up of eye drop bottles with different color caps, which she used in the morning and again at night. She never lost her sight from it. So, when my eye doctor referred me to a glaucoma specialist out of town, I didn’t go right away.
I did fill the eye drop prescriptions he gave me and used them. Mostly. Except when I went on vacation and forgot them. Or when my eyes were irritated from them. And I kept the note where he had scribbled several glaucoma specialists pinned to the bulletin board in my kitchen.
But the pandemic hit. I was too busy at work. My insurance changed. The excuses just kept coming. When I finally went to the specialist last August, the glaucoma in my left eye had progressed from mild to severe, unusually quickly, damaging my optic nerve, and permanently limiting my vision in that eye.
What is glaucoma? It’s pressure inside your eye, like a ball being overinflated. Fluid in your eye can’t drain out the way it should, and this can damage the optic nerve inside your eye and harm your vision. And here’s the thing about glaucoma: you don’t know your eye pressure is increasing without an eye doctor testing it. So, by the time you officially have it, there may be damage that cannot be undone.
The specialist did not know why the glaucoma had progressed so fast in that eye, but now that it was classified as severe, it would continue to get worse if we (she) didn’t take immediate action. I already had a quarter of my vision field in that eye lost.
I went for an MRI to determine if any “occurrence” had affected my left side, that is- perhaps an undiagnosed minor stroke, but nothing showed up on the screen. And so we scheduled surgery.
In January, I had a trabeculectomy, inserting a drain in my eye, to keep me from losing any more vision in that eye. It’s a procedure that requires actual cutting in the eye by hand and has a lengthy recuperation, compared to some in-office procedures for cataracts and less severe glaucoma.
The trabeculectomy leaves my eye more susceptible to cataracts too– so, as I have been healing, I’ve seen the vision in that left eye continue to deteriorate. That’s a scary thing. According to the doctor, eventually, I’ll be able to get the less complicated cataract surgery to remove the cataracts and my vision will be less blurry, but the loss of vision field that the damaged optic nerve created will never return.
Another procedure eye doctors can use for treating less severe glaucoma, I learned, was a trabeculoplasty, which opens clogs in your eye so fluid can drain out. This works in about 75% of people with the most common kind of glaucoma, and I found several of my friends who had this simple laser procedure. Unfortunately, the level of my eye pressure and its rapid increase had created a more emergent situation that would not allow time to see if a trabeculoplasty would work, without risking more optic nerve damage.
Ironically, the month I had surgery was also National Glaucoma Awareness Month, so I went online to help spread the word about this sight-stealing disease. More than 3 million people in the United States have glaucoma. It’s called “the sneak thief of sight” since there are no symptoms and once vision is lost, it’s permanent. As much as 40% of vision can be lost without a person noticing.
This is what happened to me. And when I posted about it, I found many other social media friends who were also casual about their medical history of glaucoma and/or the drops they were using. I hope my words offered an alert to them.
If I had paid more attention to using my drops, or gone to the eye specialist sooner, perhaps I would not have lost field of vision in my left eye. Because some glaucoma drops work better to reduce the pressure on the optic nerve on some people than others and monitoring the success or failure of those drops may have helped drive a decision for earlier and less intrusive surgery.
I continue to use drops in my right eye, which is classified with minor glaucoma. But I will monitor it, by returning to the eye doctor and eye specialist as often as I am required.
So many things in our lives depend on our ability to see: reading for pleasure and work, writing via my computer, posting updates for clients on social media, reading and seeing recipes for cooking, driving and reading road signs and seeing other cars on the road, watching TV, and seeing the expressions and faces of the people I love every day.
Glaucoma is the leading cause of irreversible blindness. Ask your eye doctor for a glaucoma screening and if you have glaucoma in your family, get screened early. Don’t make assumptions when it come to your eyes.
** Sue-Ellen is a long-term patient of St Lucie Eye and was first diagnosed with glaucoma by Dr. Kenneth Langley. She continues regular visits with St Lucie Eye along with a glaucoma specialist. If you have glaucoma, or a family history, please maintain regular check-ups with your eye professional.