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How this woman was prevented from going completely blind

Macular degeneration has caused 33,000 New Zealanders to go blind – and yet if diagnosed early, it’s treatable.

Wendy Johnstone is one of 160,000 Kiwis affected by macular degeneration. 1 in 7 people over 50 will be affected. Photo/Supplied.

Palmerston North woman Wendy Johnstone got a huge shock when she realised she lost the sight in her left eye – she thought she just needed stronger glasses. Thankfully, she was able to preserve the sight in her right eye with preventative treatment. Macular Degeneration New Zealand believes no New Zealander should go unnecessarily blind. During Macular Degeneration Awareness week, 20–26 May 2019, the charity is asking Kiwis to step up and take ownership of their eye health, understanding the risks and symptoms of macular degeneration, and where to get help.

In the mid-1970’s, Wendy Johnstone walked down the rickety access stairs of a transatlantic aircraft, and walked across the hot tarmac of an Italian runway. It was humid and bright, and Wendy perhaps wasn’t as prepared for the trip as she should have been. Among the many questionable items most modern women of that era took on holiday with them, like sun oil (instead of sunblock), was a glaring omission – sunglasses.

“I was never very good at wearing sunglasses when I was younger, and I regret that now,” says Johnstone, now 86. “That holiday is memorable because I ended up with what I called ‘arc-eye’; bright lights across my vision for the whole trip. At the time I didn’t worry but now I realise this was a warning about sun damage – and that damage can contribute to macular degeneration.”

Fit, healthy and still working as a nurse in her eighties, Johnstone hadn’t much worried about her vision.

“I didn’t have the time really,” she smiles. “Life is so busy, you get tied up with the little things. But I did always make time for a check-up with an optometrist every year.”

It was at this annual check-up, when she was about 80, that Johnstone got the first indication something was seriously wrong with her vision. After checking her right eye, which was fine, the optometrist moved on to her left and she discovered she could barely see anything at all.

“It was a huge shock, although it had obviously been like that for some time,” says Johnstone. “And I had been having a little bit of trouble reading but thought I just needed stronger glasses. In fact, I was going blind in that left eye, and my right eye had been compensating so well I hadn’t even noticed.”

Johnstone was diagnosed with macular degeneration in her left eye, a condition that affects 160,000 New Zealanders, with over 1.5 million at-risk.

Your macula is a photo-receptor-packed membrane in the centre of your retina. It’s what gives you clear central vision. Damage to your macula, caused by risk factors such as sun exposure, poor diet, smoking, high-myopia (being very short-sighted) and high blood pressure can cause the loss of central vision, preventing you from being able to read, drive, or see loved-one’s faces. The condition is more common as you age, and over 50 you are considered at increased risk. In the past little could be done, but since 2005 there has been a treatment available that can preserve and in some cases, even restore some vision.

“I was referred directly to an ophthalmologist, Dr Ah-Chan in Palmerston North, and he prescribed Avastin injections,” explains Johnstone. “I felt very uncertain about having an injection in my eye – but it’s better than going blind.”

Sadly, the injections did not work in her left eye as her vision loss had already progressed too far. But she was determined she would not lose her vision in her right eye.

“If I’d had an Amsler grid, and used it regularly, I would have been able to see the warning signs and get help,” says Johnstone. “So, I got one and began using it each month to check my other eye.”

Take the Amsler grid test here

An Amsler grid is a simple grid of lines which, if used according to the instructions, can show early warning signs such as wavy or bent lines, and missing areas of vision.

“As soon as I saw symptoms my right eye was affected, when I was about 83, I went back to Dr Ah-Chan. I have no useable sight in my left eye. I left it too late – it’s my fault. But I was determined to save what little sight I had left.”

 Johnstone began having monthly Avastin injections, moving to every eight weeks as her condition stabilised. Three years later she still has full vision in her right.

“Even with one good eye, I do rely a lot on my husband,” she says. “But I’m still able to drive locally, and I only retired a couple of years ago. It’s been six years since I was diagnosed, I’ve had 23 injections in total. I don’t have health insurance but it’s worth the expense.”

 Johnstone has clear advice for others not yet diagnosed.

“Wear sunglasses! Eat a good diet and take regular exercise. I also take the recommended vitamin supplements,” she says. “Get an Amsler grid and use it. It’s the best way to spot early problems. As soon as you notice a change, even a small one, see your optometrist or an ophthalmologist.”

“Finally, don’t fear the injections. I have them every eight weeks and I can’t even miss a week,” she says. “People are worried they will be uncomfortable or unpleasant, but they are saving your sight so get on with it.”

If you are worried about macular degeneration, want to know more, or are recently diagnosed and need support, then please contact MDNZ by visiting www.mdnz.org.nz or calling the helpline on 0800 622 852.