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Ann Ingle with her daughter, Rachel in Spain.
VOICES

Author 'Finding out I was going to be one of the people to lose sight was a huge shock'

Ann Ingle shares her story of developing and dealing with sight loss.

THE SEVERITY OF my condition hit me on a Saturday afternoon as I walked down O’Connell Street and looked at the people coming towards me. They had arms, torsos and legs, but no faces. They looked like zombies.

I had already experienced missing the glass when trying to pour water. More catastrophically, I had also missed a wine glass when attempting to pour some white wine, which is harder for me to see compared with red, but being an extra in a horror movie was a first.

Looking back, it was during a regular eye test in 2010 that my optician first noticed an irregularity. I was referred to an eye specialist who diagnosed me as having age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which impairs central vision.

I had the dry type of AMD and, at the time, it wasn’t causing me any difficulty. However, one in 10 people go on to develop the wet version. This is where abnormal blood vessels grow in the retina, and leak, causing scarring of the macula which controls central vision and light sensitivity.

Two years later, I found out that I was going to be that one in 10. My optician immediately referred me to the Royal Victoria, Eye and Ear Hospital, on Adelaide Road. It is very important to be treated as quickly as possible because AMD progresses rapidly. A person with wet AMD can lose much of their central vision in a few weeks.

3. Ann Ingle with her daughter Rachel on holiday in Malaga, Spain(1) Ann Ingle with her daughter, Rachel in Spain.

Anti-VEGF drugs are used to treat the condition. VEGF is short for Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor. In wet AMD, too much VEGF is produced in the eye, causing the growth of unwanted, unhealthy blood vessels. Anti-VEGF drugs block its production, thus stopping the development of the vessels.

Regular treatment

Currently, there is only one way to administer the drug and that is by injection into the white part of the eye. I was very nervous the day I went in for my initial treatment, but after so many injections since then, it is routine now and I am very grateful. It really is quite straightforward.

You lie back in a chair, a bit like being at the dentist, and an antiseptic solution is used to clean the surface of the eye. A device called a speculum is inserted to hold the eye open and then anaesthetic drops are used to numb it. You are instructed to look to the side as the injection is given. For those who might be a little squeamish, don’t worry. You don’t see the needle and it is over in seconds!

2. Ann Ingle with her children and grandchildren on the occasion of her 80th birthday in 2020(1) Ann with her children and grandchildren.

I have AMD in both eyes and, unfortunately, the macula in the right eye was so badly damaged, that the treatment was discontinued, as it was no longer effective. The sight I have in my right eye now is minimal. My left eye is treated every eight weeks and is stable. In fact, it has improved slightly because I can now identify faces once they are near enough.

Support

When I was first diagnosed, and during the early stages of my treatment, I was at a loss to know how to cope. I am fortunate enough to live a short walk away from Vision Ireland and getting help from them was a turning point in accepting my new life.

They gave me a white symbol cane which folds and signifies to people that I have limited sight. One of the difficulties of being visually impaired is that people don’t know it just by looking at you. If you hold the cane getting on to a bus, for example, the driver will know you have low vision. Recently, I acquired a sturdy white walking stick. This gives my arthritic knee some support, as well as announcing to the world my low vision.

1. Ann Ingle with her grandson Lucas(1) Ann with her grandson, Lucas.

I also started counselling where I cried as I told a very sympathetic woman about the changes in my life and how I felt I was losing my independence and so many things that were important to me. She encouraged me to look for practical help.

I was in a writing group and I was finding that using the laptop was getting beyond me. The solution was a large TV screen which acted as a monitor for my laptop. This meant that I could write with ease and also use the internet, read the newspaper, do crosswords and Google to my heart’s content.

Because of my lack of central vision, words disappear or are shortened, and this is especially annoying doing crosswords. With ordinary text, the brain anticipates what the next word might be, but that doesn’t work with crosswords. I can no longer read words on a page so I listen to audiobooks and knit at the same time. There is usually a way around things if you seek them out. I use the magnifier on my smartphone when I go to the shops to check the prices and ingredients. When I’m in a restaurant, it’s also invaluable for reading the menu.

I later linked up with Fighting Blindness and the range of support groups offered was also really helpful as I could learn what other people with sight loss can do with technology.

I have been able to continue writing my short stories and, more importantly, I ghost-wrote Driven for Rosemary Smith, Ireland’s foremost female rally and racing driver. I am also happy to say that, during Covid, my memoir Openhearted was published by Penguin.

Further diagnosis

Unfortunately, my sight loss story doesn’t end there. In 2022, at one of my six-monthly check-ups with the eye specialist, I was diagnosed with glaucoma. Glaucoma is caused by fluid building up in the front of the eye, which increases pressure inside the eye. I use eye drops morning and night to prevent it from getting any worse.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been able to receive the medical help available to me. At 84 years of age, I look forward to many years of happiness living with my loss of vision and enjoying life with my family and friends.

Knowing Fighting Blindness is doing research into finding better treatments, and maybe one day a cure means that people like me with AMD may no longer need to worry about seeing zombies on O’Connell Street!

Ann Ingle is an author, mother and grandmother. Fighting Blindness is organising a public engagement day on Saturday, 8 June as part of its hosting of the Retina International World Congress taking place in Dublin. One of the biggest global gatherings of eye researchers this year, the event offers a rare opportunity for people with a vision impairment to quiz eye experts and hear about the latest advances in treatments and cures. To book your place, visit www.fightingblindness.ie.

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