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CONTACT LENSES NEARLY LEFT ME BLINDED

In the London Evening Standard, London , mid August was an article by Lucy Lord which we have edited giving the salient points.

Lucy Lord explains why rinsing her lenses in tap water left her in hospital for more than two weeks.

About six weeks ago, I awoke on a friend's sofa after an impromptu party. Relieved to discover I had not slept with my contact lenses, I fished them out of the glass of tap water I had used in the absence of solution and put them in my eyes. My left eye stung a bit but I thought little of it. Three hours later, it was burning and watering so badly I threw the lens away.

By the middle of that night I was in screaming pain, and my friend drove me to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital . I was sent home from A & E (Accident & Emergency) with some ointment and the reassuring words "with eyes, it is never as serious as it feels".

Back at the hospital 24 hours later, my grotesquely bloodshot eye swollen almost shut, I could hardly see through a thickening white mist. This time they took it seriously and gave me the first series of "scrapes" - where a sample is taken from the front of the eye with a metal blade, to test for infection.

When I baulked at the knife, I was told: "If we had not caught you now you would probably have lost your eye."

I was admitted to the Western Eye Hospital in Marylebone to have antibiotic drops administered half-hourly around the clock, initially for two to five days. I was told to prepare myself for serious sleep deprivation and the I "was not out of the woods yet".

Terrified now, with visions of glass eyes and patches exacerbating the fear and pain, I asked exactly what they meant.

I had a corneal ulcer caused by bacteria or by an amoeba call Acanthamoeba. Both live in tap water and can cause permanent damage to your vision or loss of the eye itself. But the doctors could not give a long-term prognosis - they did not know which it was, how quickly it was attacking me or how well I would respond to the treatment.

Not terribly well, I stayed in hospital for two-and-a-half weeks in a zombie-like state of semi-slumber, waking every couple of hours in such agony I'd rush down the corridors like a madwoman, demanding more painkillers ("Why can't you just give me morphine?" might have been my turn of phrase). The NHS (National Health Service) only allows certain analgesics for eyes, despite one consultant's comment "I have seen patients wanting to jump out of windows to escape the pain."

Daily I saw the doctors. Daily they were concerned by my slow progress. I tried not to think about losing my eye, to persuade myself I was getting better, that every morning when the nurse asked me how many fingers she was holding up I could honestly say that I knew. And then, after weeks, the agony started to subside, the white mist soften, the eye look slightly less angry.

I was diagnosed with Pseumonas - a relatively common bacteria. Had it been Acanthamoeba it could have been much worse.

According to Dr. Naveed Khan, lecturer in microbiology at Birkbeck College , the amoeba is very hard to eradicate. He said "If misdiagnosed, it can lie dormant, only to return even more aggressively. Then the only option is a corneal graft - a very long and painful process, involving stitches, steroids and the possibility of rejection."

Now I can just about see with that eye, but the damage to my vision is permanent. I am still using antibiotic and steroid drops and it will be months before my eye looks and feels normal.

OK, so my casual approach to contact lens maintenance was pretty idiotic, but I was not made aware of the dangers. I have been wearing lenses for about four years, but initially these were daily disposables which do not require cleaning. About five months ago I switched to monthlies and was told not to use tap water - but I was not told why.

I asked Dr. Khan what advice he would give lens-wearers. "If you must wear lenses, use daily disposables," he said.

"Always wash your hands beforehand, with an anti-bacterial soap if possible - bacteria and amoeba are everywhere - and dry them, preferably with a hot-air dryer. Try not to touch the inner surface of the lens. Use hydrogen peroxide - not chlorine-based solutions. Never sleep in lenses, swim in them or wash them in tap water , which is highly dangerous, even when boiled."

I think I'll be sticking with my glasses.
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