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‘I’m going to save your sight’ said my mother’s ophthalmologist. There was a collective sigh of relief in that small room. My mother had been diagnosed with Aged Macular Degeneration (AMD) and the three of us, my mother, my husband and I hadn’t known what to expect. I know now that AMD is a deteriorating condition that affects central vision. Without it, you can’t read, watch television or see ahead of you. I know now that the sooner AMD is diagnosed and treated the better the chances are of preserving sight. Mum’s doctor explained that the hoped for outcome of eye injections is to prevent the growth of abnormal blood vessels in the retina; a small price to pay for the chance to keep her sight.

That was a year ago but it had taken the previous four years to get my mother to that moment in time. She hadn’t wanted a general annual check-up. Her reading glasses were good enough, she said. If I hadn’t finally made an appointment and insisted she go, we wouldn’t have known (impossible as that sounds) that she has lost the sight in her left eye and that the right eye was about to follow suit. The disease process can be slow and is often not noticed until it’s too late. People adapt, or they make excuses or they put the signs down to age or tiredness.

Almost half a million Australians are living with blindness or low vision. One in seven people aged 50 years and over, show some evidence of macular degeneration. Eye checks are the key and they are bulk billed. OCT scans check the retina at sixty dollars a session, eminently affordable. I can only conclude that avoiding check-ups is less about the money or finding the time, and more about lack of awareness.

In some situations ignorance may be bliss, but not when it affects eye sight. When my mother had her check-up I thought the scan was an option; it turned out to be a dire necessity. In hindsight it’s obvious that had she gone for that check-up earlier, the degenerative process would have been slowed down.

The Macular Disease Foundation’s intent is to eliminate hindsight by informing on the importance of early detection, raising awareness of macular diseases, and the need for exercise and healthy eating. There are regular newsletters to subscribe to, informative literature and educational sessions throughout Australia. The Foundation is a marvelous resource. But there are so many equally important diseases competing to inform that it must be hard to get as much air time as they would like in order to spread the word more widely.

Did you know that May was Macula Month? Clip board at the ready, I took a straw poll last May: on trains, trams and at the local shopping centre. I couldn’t find one person who had heard about Macula Month. I remember a long ago advertisement urging women to check their breasts and under their arms for lumps. The word has spread and most women know about it now. Perhaps Optometrists could reinstate the posters they had on their shop windows a couple of years ago asking people to check their Macula (and explain why it is important).

The Foundation scored a $150,000 grant from Greg Hunt, Minister for Health and Human Services. The money was used to develop a national strategic action plan, “A roadmap to deliver better out comes for patients.” Ita Buttrose, a patron of the Macular Disease Foundation was there for the presentation and talked about her family connection to the disease. I have read that her father was diagnosed too late but quick action saved her uncle’s sight. Ita now promotes regular macular checks, exercise and a good diet.

In my blissfully ignorant days, I would have noticed large print books on library shelves but didn’t give it much thought. When I heard the term legally blind bandied about I thought it a strange way to describe such a condition. But because neither the oversized books nor the term legally blind affected me or mine I let it all pass me by without query. Now that I am directly and indirectly affected I can no longer afford to ignore it. I say directly because there’s a fifty percent chance that my brother, my sister, my children, grandchildren and I will inherit the disease. Time for professional checks and Amsler grids.

Amsler

My mother was diagnosed aged 89. Had she died before she’d been diagnosed I would never have known about the legacy she left me. Whether or not there is a history of AMD in the family everyone over fifty should have an Amsler grid hanging (at eye level) on their wall, or fridge. (Get it from the Macular Disease Foundation.)

The grid is made up of vertical and horizontal lines, with a dot in the centre. The idea is to stand in front of the grid once a week, hand over one eye, then hand over the other and watch out for changes. The next step would be an immediate visit to the optometrist or eye specialist. The check takes all of twenty seconds and is worth the effort. If I had known about AMD I would have understood about the consequences and mum and I would have been at the optometrist’s door faster than you can say show me to the eye-chart.

Like Ita Buttrose, mum and I are putting hindsight to good use. Mum takes Warfarin so her intake is limited, but we eat our greens. I eat kale, and we eat leek, and broccoli and spinach; we eat meat once a week, add omega 3 (salmon) to our diet, and munch on a handful of walnuts every other day. Then we cross our fingers and hope for the best.

Check out the Macular Disease Foundation Website for more information. https://www.mdfoundation.com.au

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