Seeing eye to eye

Cathy and Adam Cooke

I have a lot in common with my wife Cathy, as you might expect, but the common threads include a key health concern: Vision issues.

Diagnosed in October with the “wet” form of Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD), Cathy now receives monthly injections in her right eye at St. Martha’s Regional Hospital in Antigonish.

It’s hard to process as a husband who loves his wife, and it occasionally brings back unpleasant memories of two emergency surgeries I had at the age of 20 to save the vision in my only working eye (also on the right) when my retina basically went on strike.

However, I can’t tell Cathy’s story nearly as well as she does, so I’ve asked her to share it in her own words for this week’s column.

How it all began: “I’ve had a couple of lumps on my macula over the last two years. I was told it was a side effect of having taken steroids for inflammatory bowel disease a few years ago. Early this fall I noticed I was having trouble reading. It felt like my eyes weren’t working together anymore.”

“I went to see Dr. Barry Burns, my optometrist. He displayed one large letter “C” on the screen at the end of the room. With both eyes open I could see it. But with only my right eye open I couldn’t. He went to the end of the room and started waving his arms around and asked if I could see him. This struck me as absurdly funny. Of course, I could see him and even tell how many fingers he was waving. Afterwards it didn’t seem so funny. He told me to see my ophthalmologist in Antigonish. I asked how soon I should see him – he said, ‘You’re seeing him today and he will give you an injection in your right eye.’ That wasn’t funny at all!”

The actual injection process: “First, they take a picture of the back of your eye, called an OCT (optical coherence tomography). This doesn’t hurt. Then they add freezing drops. This also doesn’t hurt. When you are supposedly frozen, they clip back your eyelids with what feels like a steel barrette. This is uncomfortable for me or at least feels icky. I’ve found over the years that I tend to need more freezing than the average during medical or dental procedures. Maybe that’s why I mind the eyelid clip.”

“After a few drops he tests to see if you’re frozen by poking your eye. I’m never frozen enough, so it hurts. After a few more drops I don’t feel it anymore, so he puts a drop of antiseptic on the area he is about to inject. If I wasn’t frozen, this would hurt, but it doesn’t. He then quickly injects the eye and removes the clamp in what feels like one smooth motion. The injection doesn’t hurt, but it also feels weird. Afterward my eye feels a little bruised but not painful.”

I’m usually in Dr. Mustafa Kapasi’s office when he administers this treatment. It’s hard to watch. And it makes Cathy and I both try to visualize the beginnings of ocular injections – who came up with it? When? Who was the ground-breaking but unlucky volunteer to get a needle in the eye?

Fortunately, she’s in calm hands: “I asked the very youthful-looking Dr. Kapasi if he’d done this very often – yes, thousands of times. Still horrifying. But he is very calm, kind and professional – as well as older than he looks.”

And there’s a bright side to all of this – it works: “The first month I noticed an improvement. Just now, as I’m typing, I closed my left eye and there is no longer a big black area in the centre of my vision. The centre is still blurred but I can see the printing through the blur. That’s huge! I should regain the vision in this eye with continued treatment. I suppose I will need more treatments even after this. But for now, it’s one month at a time.”

And, considering that her late mother had the “dry” form of AMD, which isn’t currently treatable, Cathy is relieved to have a means to deal with her own condition – although she’d like it to have a different name.

“Age-related Macular Degeneration… Why not just call it ‘old fart eyes’? It is an accurate name, but I have difficulty thinking that something that came on at 55 is age-related. I don’t feel old most days, although I qualify for the seniors discount at Shoppers’ Drug Mart.”

Whatever the name, whatever the treatment, I’m amazed that she can endure it – and she inspires me more than she may ever realize.

Here’s looking at you, Cathy. And I’m so relieved that you can look right back at me.