My fight for sight: Why Star reporter Nick will never wear contact lenses again
Star reporter Nick Humphreys tells his story of how a bacteria found in a droplet of water ruined his eyesight – and caused him a year of misery.
Have you ever showered or been swimming in contact lenses? Or got a bit of dirt in your eye from playing sport? Or even handled your lenses with wet fingers before putting them in?
Well, be warned, as lurking in our water and soil is a parasitic bug which can destroy your eye and leave you blind.
A YouGov poll for Fight for Sight revealed that a large proportion of UK contact lens wearers are putting their eyesight at risk through unsafe habits, unaware that they could develop infections like Acanthamoeba keratitis (AK).
A worrying 56 per cent of people polled said they wore them for longer than the recommended 12 hours a day, 54 per cent said they had swum or showered in them and 47 per cent had slept in them. Meanwhile, 15 per cent of respondents had put them in their mouth to clean or lubricate them and two per cent had even shared used lenses with other wearers.
About 3.5 million people in the UK wear contact lenses, and I used to be one of them. Sometimes for vanity and sometimes, as a keen Sunday League football player, for practicality.
I’ve worn glasses since the age of about four or five, but have never liked how I looked in them.
So really contact lenses were the obvious choice, and from 2013 I had used them with no problems.
It was a bright but chilly Friday afternoon in January last year when I first noticed something seriously wrong. My right eye had been a bit dry all week, but I simply put it down to early mornings and a lack of sleep. But this was something more.
For a few days I used over the counter eye drops and turned all my phone and computer display settings down to the lowest brightness.
But after the pain became too much, I went to the optician, and was told I had an ulcer on my eye and advised to go to the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital immediately.
There, after being seen by a handful of eye specialists, I had five scrapings (as vile as it sounds) from my right eye sent away to be tested.
The doctors couldn’t be sure what was happening until the test results came back, but they thought it might be Acanthamoeba keratitis (AK).
It is an infection of the cornea – the clear window at the front of the eye – caused by a microscopic organism called Acanthamoeba, which is found in water. Sure enough, I was diagnosed a week later, yet it still didn’t really sink in.
After using disinfectant eye drops for three weeks, it seemed I was on the mend, but by March 2018 I found myself completely blind in my right eye.
I was driving to work and my vision completely went in my right eye. I don’t know how I managed not to crash, but it didn’t take me long to realise I needed to get back to the hospital.
Referred to the Birmingham and Midland Eye Centre, doctors prescribed higher strength drops that needed to be applied hourly – even at night.
The bug had returned with a vengeance and rendered me pretty much housebound for six months. I couldn’t read a page of a newspaper without being in excrutiating pain, light sensitivity was so bad I had to keep the curtains drawn at all times. I even had to watch Eurovision with my sunglasses on.
Some might be reading this thinking “here we go, yet another millennial wimp who needs pulled up by his bootstraps”, and they’d probably be right.
But to hammer home the message, women on an online support group who’ve had this condition have said the pain is a million times worse than childbirth. It hurt!
Spring and summer 2018 was spent backwards and forwards to appointments at Birmingham & Midland Eye Centre, with the condition getting progressively worse and doctors not knowing how to fix it. While I should have been at the pub getting swept up in the euphoria of England in the semi-finals of a World Cup, I was curled up on the sofa, listening to matches on the radio.
Six months of doing nothing is enough to send anyone stir crazy. When you get to the point of having watched so much Jeremy Kyle you know who the daddy is before he’s opened the envelope, you know there’s a problem.
Eventually, in July, my doctor tried experimental cross-linking surgery, a procedure normally used on patients whose cornea has developed into a cone shape. It involves the surgeon scraping back layers of skin on the eye, pouring in vitamin drops and blasting it with a UV light. To my huge relief, it killed the bug and ended the pain.
However, more was to come. A second operation followed in September to speed up the healing after months of toxic drops and a damaging procedure.
I had an amniotic membrane transplant, which involved having graft material placed on the cornea and glued down underneath a hard contact lens. In my case though, the glue didn’t work, so it had to be stitched onto my eyeball.
Despite the pain, the operation went well medically. The problem was a few days afterwards when I pulled back the safety patches and saw a monster looking back at me in the mirror.
Depression and anxiety have been a problem since, but fortunately it has healed to a point where, with glasses on, it’s not too noticeable to others. Blindness will remain until I have a full corneal transplant on August 15, which will also include cataract surgery. I will owe a monumental debt of gratitude to my donor.
Working with the charity Fight for Sight to raise awareness about the danger of using contact lenses while showering or swimming has helped.
I can honestly say if I’d had the slightest idea that this was even a remote possibility I would never have worn contacts in the first place. It’s crucial that people out there know this is a reality and can happen because of something as simple as showering.
If I get my sight back I’ll never wear contacts again and, if I’m lucky enough to take to football pitch again, I’ll be donning the goggles like the ex-Holland midfielder Edgar Davids.
I’ve lost 18 months of my life because of something as simple as showering with contacts in.
Now contact lens makers need to put sufficient warnings on packaging to stop this preventable condition destroying more lives.
* For more information visit fightforsight.org.uk