My Health Experience: Enemy in sight – how glaucoma becomes ‘the thief in the night’

Glaucoma damages the optic nerve, which sends images to the brain. It is irreversible and a leading cause of blindness

When I was five years old, I lost my eye in an accident and the trauma of that experience gradually led me to lose the sight in my other eye.

We were having an extension built onto our house at the time when I fell into a bag of builder’s lime. The health and safety standards for building were not as strictly controlled back in 1975 as they are today and I was obviously playing somewhere I shouldn’t have been.

I have no memory whatsoever of the accident which is apparently quite normal in such a childhood trauma.

My good eye had been slightly damaged in the accident but I was able to manage fine in school until the middle of my Leaving Cert exams when my vision started to go blurry.

I went to see my eye specialist who diagnosed me with chronic glaucoma related to the trauma from my accident.

Optic nerve damage
Glaucoma is an eye condition that causes damage to the optic nerve, which transmits images to the brain. The eye needs a certain amount of pressure to maintain shape and size. However, increased fluid can put pressure on the optic nerve and cause damage.

I was admitted to hospital straight away for a long stage of treatment to reduce the pressure in my eye. There was very little treatment available for glaucoma back them, apart from drops and medication.

The doctors did not want to operate on me because they were afraid I would lose the eye completely. There was no glaucoma specialist in Ireland at that time.

I battled away on the tablets and drops for eight years and was in and out of hospital for weeks at a time to be monitored as the medication I was on was so strong.

In 1998, I was on holiday in California when my eye became very sore. I went to see my uncle’s opthalmologist who referred me to a glaucoma specialist.

He said he couldn’t leave the eye the way it was and wanted to operate on it the next day. The US doctors couldn’t believe how much medication I was on.

The surgeon pointed out that it was a matter of only months before my sight would have gone completely or I went into kidney failure due to the side effects of all the heavy medication I was on, and my doctors at home agreed.

Reduced sight
I had the operation and it was a success in the fact that the pressure came down, but it did damage the eye and my sight was reduced quite dramatically after that.

Shortly after the surgery, newer drops came onto the market with less side effects so if the pressure did go up again, the medication was much stronger and more effective.

Ten years after my surgery, the pressure went back up and Dr Aoife Doyle, Ireland's first glaucoma specialist, did laser surgery on my eye. This surgery had not been available at the time of my operation and it has worked for me so far in keeping the pressure in my eye down.

Glaucoma never goes away, to my knowledge, and there is no cure for it. When the pressure builds up, I get physically sick as well.

My eyesight continued to deteriorate gradually over the years since the surgery and, at this stage, all I am left with is light perception which means I can distinguish between night and day.

You have to adjust to your situation and make the best you can of it. I work in the civil service in Dublin which keeps me out of trouble and I have a labradoodle guide dog called Vico. The dogs are named in litters as pups. Each litter starts with a different letter of the alphabet.

Since I got Vico four years ago, it has become easier to get around.

Some 25 years on from my diagnosis, the treatment for glaucoma has come on so much but the key thing with this disease is prevention.

They call glaucoma “the thief in the night” because there are no symptoms in the early stages and the damage it causes is irreversible.

I would strongly advise people to go for regular check-ups and to go straight to your optician if you notice any changes in your eyesight.

They all test automatically for glaucoma now as it is one of the leading causes of preventable blindness in Ireland.

In conversation with

Call for implementation of national vision strategy as report states that millions could be saved annually

The National Vision Coalition is calling for the immediate implementation of a national vision strategy following the launch of a study into the economic impact of four eye diseases.

The Economic Cost and Burden of Eye Diseases and Preventable Blindness in Ireland report states that up to €76 million could be saved annually if early intervention was prioritised.

There are currently 292,867 individuals in Ireland with one of the four eye diseases researched – cataract, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma or wet age -related macular degeneration – each of which can lead to blindness.

The report reveals that five people each week became blind in Ireland since 2010, despite 75- 80 per cent of blindness being preventable.

The report also found that 2.1 million work days are lost in Ireland per annum as a consequence of vision impairment and blindness.

Blindness and vision impairment cost the Irish State €205 million in 2010, yet up to €76 million could potentially be saved if a series of cost-effective measures for eye disease was implemented.

Michelle McDonagh