Main image © Neil O Connor, UNP
After a lifetime living and working in the blustery north of England, Veronica Mackay was looking forward to enjoying a well-earned semi-retirement in sunny France.
Selling up in her mid-60s, the former advertising executive relocated with her husband Alan to the rural south-west region in 2009, where they’d had a house built and set up a gardening company.
Quickly adapting to their new lifestyle, the couple soon settled into the local scene. Thanks to modern technology, they managed to stay in touch with family and friends regularly via email.
But a blood clot that suddenly appeared in Veronica’s left eye a year after they moved to France changed everything.
Visiting her doctor straight away, Veronica was frightened to discover she couldn’t see out of her right eye as she was being treated. She was referred to see a specialist who told her brusquely that her left eye was fine, but she had dry macular degeneration in her right eye which was destroying her central vision.
“When I asked what could be done about it, he just shrugged and said nothing. It was just old age,” she recalls.
Returning to her daughter’s home in Rochdale, Veronica (now 70) visited her old optician who referred her to an eye specialist at the local hospital. He confirmed the AMD diagnosis.
Up until now there has been no widely accepted treatment for sufferers of AMD, which is the leading cause of blindness in the over 55s in the developed world. Surgery carried considerable risks of infection and bleeding and was rarely offered.
Anxiously asking: “How long will it be before I can’t see?” Veronica was told every case is different. Frightened and upset, she returned to France, where life gradually became more difficult.
“I started to feel more and more isolated as the condition worsened. My left eye compensated at first but as it deteriorated too, it became more and more difficult to see my computer screen and soon I was not fit to drive.
“Living in a rural area, I couldn’t rely on public transport. I didn’t want to have to be dependent on other people and I started to feel very isolated. If I shut my eye I could only see half my husband’s face clearly. I couldn’t sew or even pluck my eyebrows. It affected every area of my life and I was terrified of going blind.”
Veronica also became aware that her hearing was becoming sharper and her fingers were more sensitive. “It was as if my whole body was getting ready to compensate for me going blind,” she says.
On a Christmas shopping trip in England in December 2012, Alan (64) spotted an article in a daily newspaper about a new eye operation being pioneered at London Eye Hospital, which involved telescopic lenses being implanted.
Investigating further, they learned that technology devised by NASA scientists to fix the Hubble Space Telescope was starting to be used in a revolutionary lens that could save the sight of AMD sufferers.
The most significant development in AMD treatment for 25 years, it involves inserting a mini ’telescope’ made of pliable material into an incision of less than 3mm. It’s a ten-minute procedure any cataract-trained surgeon can comfortably perform, according to a London Eye Hospital spokesman.
The drawback is that currently the operation is only available privately and costs £6,000 each eye, though doctors are hopeful it will eventually be offered by the NHS.
Though they couldn’t readily afford it, Veronica and Alan were undeterred by the cost and decided to downsize to a smaller house back in Bury, Greater Manchester.
‘This is not just the next step, but a giant leap in optical technology’
“Nothing was more important than saving my sight. If it meant losing our home in France, it was a small price to pay.”
A generous friend loaned them the money, which they paid back when the house sale was completed. Veronica was one of the first people in the world to have the operation done on both eyes in March this year and says she’s never looked back.
“I didn’t feel or see anything,” she explains. “I am a bit claustrophobic and that worried me, but a clear blue guard was put over the eye not being operated on which meant I could see.
“I didn’t feel a thing and within days my sight had improved 100 per cent. To have something taken away and then get it back again is brilliant. Now I can get on with life – read the papers, dial telephone numbers and use the internet – and do some necessary DIY on our new home!
“I feel I’ve been very lucky and I’d recommend the operation to anyone in my position. There’s no longer any need to feel isolated.”
Consultant ophthalmic surgeon Bobby Qureshi, founder of London Eye Hospital Pharma, formed to bring innovative ideas to the wider ophthalmic market, says: “This is not just the next step but a giant leap in optical technology.
“It is immeasurably satisfying to have had a role in creating a solution which can benefit such a wide range of people for whom, at the moment, there is no treatment.”
For more information, visit www.londoneyehospital.com