DETROIT LAKES, Minn. — “It’s gonna be pretty hard to be a newspaper editor if I go blind,” I recall saying.
An awkward laugh stumbled out of my mouth after that, but I wasn't actually kidding.
It was 2011 and I was 31 years old, working as the editor of the Perham Focus — a job I had only recently begun and hoped was just the beginning of a long career in writing and editing. A job that entails extensive reading of small print. A job that demands a working pair of peepers.
And as bad luck would have it, I had just been diagnosed with one of the leading causes of blindness in people under 40.
“Uveitis,” the eye doctor told me. “Acute uveitis, in both eyes.”
I had never heard of it before but, later that night, after a regretful fall down a rabbit hole of terrifying health blogs, I learned more about uveitis than was good for me.
A rare autoimmune disorder, uveitis causes inflammation in the middle part of the eye, around the eyeball. It creates pressure and pain, redness, blurred and decreased vision, and sensitivity to light. Relapses are common, and it can be chronic. It can cause irreversible eye damage and permanent vision loss.
The ophthalmologist took all of one minute to diagnose me. One peek inside my eyes through that alien-looking machine of his, and he knew exactly what was causing my symptoms.
As bad luck would have it again, the uveitis caused a secondary complication in my case: synechia, a phenomenon where the iris sticks to the layer of the eye in front of it.
So my eyes couldn’t focus. My pupils were locked into the dilated position, and I could see only blurry shapes and colors. I had to wear sunglasses at every waking hour, even indoors. That Corey Hart song, "Sunglasses at Night," was in my head all the time back then.
To read, I had to put my sunglassed face within inches of the paper or screen I was trying to see, and squint and strain to decipher every fuzzy little word-blob. I had to delegate some of my job duties to coworkers. It’s a wonder I got any work done at all. At home, I couldn’t live my normal life. Couldn’t watch TV. Couldn’t cook. Couldn't drive.
It was all very new and strange to me. I had always had 20/20 vision; had never even been to an eye doctor before. Now that I had been to one, I didn’t like what he had to say.
He told me it was unusual to get uveitis so quickly and badly in both eyes, especially for a younger person. That meant I might have an underlying autoimmune condition I didn't know about, and would need to undergo some tests.
Then he said we’d have to get my irises unstuck by “breaking” them apart from the layer in front of them. That didn’t sound like very much fun.
Worse, he told me I might have to get steroid injections in my eyes. Meaning someone would be sticking needles in my eyes. That definitely didn’t sound like very much fun.
Worst of all, he said there was a real chance I could lose my vision, or be dealing with chronic vision problems for the rest of my life.
“Why is this happening?” I wondered.
I only displayed symptoms for a couple weeks. This was all supposed to be a simple sinus infection, like my regular physician first diagnosed.
To this day, I have no idea how or why I got uveitis. Even after having a bunch of tests done. It’s likely I’ll never know.
As luck would have it — good luck this time, not bad — my case turned out to be a short-term unwelcomed guest that left soon after it arrived.
After a few weeks of flooding my eyes with steroid drops, my irises painlessly “broke” and, fortunately, several weeks later, the uveitis cleared up. I didn’t end up having to get a needle in the eyes, after all (whew!), and am not dealing with any chronic issues. I'm still writing and editing, at the Detroit Lakes Tribune now.
It’s been 10 years, and the whole thing is just an old memory for me now.
I learned a lasting lesson from the experience, though: You have to take care of your eyes. They’re body parts like any other — important ones. Although eye health can be easy to overlook — there’s some irony for you — it’s a mistake to take your vision for granted. Regular visits to the eye doctor are a must.
I'm sharing this story today in light of Low Vision Awareness Month, a month dedicated to spreading the word about vision problems, which affect millions of Americans. Promoted by the National Eye Institute and other organizations, it takes place every February in the U.S.
The Mayo Clinic recommends that healthy adults with no vision problems get their eyes checked every five to 10 years in their 20s and 30s, every two to four years from ages 40 to 54, every one to three years from 55 to 64, and every one or two years after that (more often for those with vision problems or at greater risk of eye disease).