It was like looking through a thick fog


MY HEALTH EXPERIENCE:I lost my sight when I was splashed with acidic chemicals

PEOPLE ASK ME, what it is like to be blind? Close your eyes for five minutes, try to walk around and that approaches the sensation I had to deal with for three months short of nine years. I could tell if it was light or dark, but that is all.

It is like being in space, solitary confinement or a prison where you know things are going on around you, but you can’t see anything.

My life changed on the morning of July 26th, 1999. I was preparing to decant a load that I was delivering to an industrial facility in Dublin when a surge of acidic chemicals splashed me in the face.

Immediately, my son was on hand and washed the acid off my face, but when I opened my eyes everything had gone totally grey. There was no black or white. It was like looking through a thick fog.

An ambulance took me to St James’s Hospital and, when it was realised that it was an eye injury, I was taken to the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital in Dublin.

I was detained there for several days under sedation while the doctors and nurses worked around the clock to save my eyesight.

Prof Louis Collum did everything he humanly could do to save my sight. Slowly it came back. It went from 50 per cent to 60 per cent and after 10 days I was discharged.

But, no sooner had I got it back, than it began to deteriorate again. I had come half-way up the hill only to go down again.

I asked Prof Collum’s assistant what was wrong. Why was I losing my sight again?

She said that they were doing what they could, but I could never expect my sight to be right again. Neither could my life ever be the same again.

Over the space of two to three weeks, my sight went down altogether, again. I was blind.

I was looking at the loss of everything. At the time the economy was doing very well and so were my businesses. I was into haulage, drainage and civil engineering, and I employed many sub-contractors.

I had 40 people working for me and dozens of things on the go, yet I couldn’t see the hand in front of my face.

This was history repeating itself as my father was blinded in an accident. He would have been totally blind from the age of 40 and survived against all the odds and lived a very full life.

It was a case of me having my back to the wall and dealing with everything that happens every day.

I had a great wife and family and a wonderful workforce who helped me in every possible way. Everybody mucked in along with me.

I had so much on my mind I hadn’t time to think about the psychological consequences of my blindness.

In 2005, I decided to bail out. I was at the top so where do you stop? I could see the economic bubble bursting. I used to chum around with guys and they were telling me to get the hell out of it while I had the chance, so I disposed of all my businesses by June 2006.

All that time I was looking for a cure for my blindness. It was like trawling the oceans with a herring net. There had to be something out there to help me.

We travelled to London, the United States and all over Europe whenever we heard there might be a potential breakthrough.

Eventually in early 2008 I heard of a Boston surgeon called Dr Claes Dohlman, inventor of what is now known as the Boston Keratoprosthesis.

Keratoprosthesis is a surgical procedure where a severely damaged or diseased cornea is replaced with an artificial cornea at the front of the eye.

I went to talk to my consultant Billy Power about it. He said it might or might not help and the decision would be mine. I could get 10 per cent or 20 per cent of my sight back, but there was no guarantee.

I prayed to the man above and all his helpers and Our Lady of Knock. While I was in Knock, I decided to go ahead with it. I rang Mr Power and said to him, “In for a penny, in for a pound.” That was in April 2008.

He ordered the replacement cornea from Boston and I had my operation on May 6th, 2008.

The Keratoprosthesis takes a few minutes to light up. Within a few minutes I could see as well as I can see now in my right eye. The sight has not returned to my left, but the glass was half-full as far as I was concerned.

Within 10 minutes I could see all that I wanted to see. I couldn’t have hoped for more.

I was looking at how things had changed over a period of nine years. I was looking at the cars, the ambulances, the trucks and, most importantly, my family and friends.

I tried not to get too excited in case it didn’t last. I didn’t want to reach for the moon with a skyhook.

I came out the other side of the operation a hell of a lot smarter, older and wiser and I began to appreciate the things I had never appreciated before.

Why had I not appreciated grass, flowers or trees? Why do we take the sun or the moon for granted? Why dwell on the things that are wrong, instead of the things that are not wrong?

I kept asking myself the questions about all the years I had my sight. Why didn’t I do this and do that? I was a workaholic working 18 hours a day five days a week. I worked and worked and worked.

Within three days of my operation, I climbed Breesy Hill in Donegal near Ballyshannon where I grew up. I must have been around it a thousand times, but never up it before. I’d never learned to swim. There were so many things I had not done before because I was engrossed in work and in providing for my wife and family.

I’m so grateful for all the help I got at the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital. I couldn’t begin to describe the goodness of everyone connected with the hospital. If Prof Collum hadn’t minded my eyes all those years this might not have happened and Mr Power was brilliant too. A special mention to Dr Adrienne Bobart and Dr Su Ling.

I am grateful for the NCBI [National Council for the Blind of Ireland] who gave me every help and got me a voice-activated computer with the help of my family and friends and particularly Brenda and Séamus in the NCBI.

I’m back driving and I’m stuck into work again. I’m mixed up in several things, but it is more of a hobby than anything else. You can’t tell a sheepdog to lie on a sofa all day.

Every morning I wake up and sit by the side of the bed waiting for it to light up. When it does, I’m up and at it. Every day is a bonus.

In conversation with RONAN MCGREEVY