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 and slowing down its progress. 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 two years 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. AMD and Macular Degeneration through diabetes are the major macular diseases, but there are others that are not easily detected. 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 subtle 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 bulk billed, OCT scans are 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.
Education is the key word. In some situations ignorance may be bliss, but not when it affects eye sight. When my mother had her check-up I thought the OCT 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 left eye may have been saved or at least preserved.
The Macular Disease Foundation, Australia works on eliminating hindsight. It raises awareness of macular diseases, educates on exercise and healthy eating and informs on the importance of early detection. There are free newsletter updates you can subscribe to, and informative literature. The Foundation delivers educational sessions throughout Australia. Despite it all we are still woefully ignorant.
I did a recent straw poll: on trains, buses and trams. Clipboard at the ready, I stopped and asked questions at the local shopping centre. I couldn’t find anyone who had heard that May had been macula month. I remember a long ago advertisement urging women to check their breasts and under their arms for lumps. Most women know about it now. The push for edification and education was not limited to a month, it promoted constant chatter on talk back stations and morning shows.
In 2018 the Foundation scored a $150,000 grant last year from the Honourable Greg Hunt, Minister for Health. Not huge as donations go but the money has been used develop a national strategic action plan, ‘A roadmap to deliver better outcomes for patients.’
The Chair at the ABC, Ita Buttrose, also an author, a journalist, former editor of the Women’s Weekly and National Ambassador for Alzheimer’s Australia, is Patron of the Macular Disease Foundation. Her father and one of his sisters lost their sight. Early detection and quick action saved her uncle’s sight. Ita now promotes regular macular checks, exercise and a good diet. She knows there’s a fifty percent chance that her family will inherit the disease.
In my blissfully ignorant days, I would have noticed large print books on library shelves but not given the reason for 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. I can’t afford to ignore it any more.
My mother was diagnosed aged 89. Had she died before she’d been diagnosed I would never have known about the legacy she had left me. I have a fifty percent chance of contracting AMD. That’s why an Amsler grid hanging (at eye level) on the wall, or fridge is handy. (Get it from the Macular Disease Foundation or the Optometrist.) The grid is made up of vertical and horizontal lines, with a dot in the centre. Stand in front of the grid once a week, hand over one eye, then hand over the other and watch out for changes. If the lines are suddenly not showing straight the next step is an immediate visit to the eye specialist. The Amsler check takes 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.
There’s promising research but currently no cure for dry macular degeneration. But if your condition is diagnosed early, you can take steps to help slow its progression, such as taking vitamin supplements, eating healthfully and not smoking.
Like Ita Buttrose, mum and I are putting hindsight to good use by adopting healthy habits. 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 get on with our lives and hope for the best.
The Macular Disease Foundation offers informative updates through its quarterly newsletter. The Spring Vision Voice has an eye health recipe; there are Education sessions in every State, and a new MDFA podcast series. Check out the Macular Disease Foundation Website for more information. https://www.mdfoundation.com.au/