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Infection attacks sight

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Martha Cortez leans in so close, her face is about an inch away from the paper she’s signing. To an unknowing passerby it may seem odd, but she is just grateful to be able to see — even if she has to get that close. Seven months ago, the 35-year-old truck driver did not foresee the difficulties impaired vision would bring to her life. Now, having nearly lost her sight permanently, any sight is a good sight for her. “I’m really hoping at least just to be able to (see), even if I have to wear glasses… I don’t like being blind or everything having to be pitch black. That was really scary for me,” she said. Cortez’s woes began when she decided to rinse her contact lenses in tap water rather than the solution recommended by her optometrist. “You figure you stick them in the water (and) it’s not going to do anything. I mean you shower with the water, you drink the water, you cook with water, you wash dishes and everything. It’s like, what’s the difference between all that and putting it in your eye?” she said. The difference is dangerously huge, according to Natural Vision Dr. David Kaye, who treated Cortez for Acanthamoeba keratitis. “Single cell organisms called amoebas swim in the water. Despite the fact that the water is supposed to be sterile, they still get there and they love contact lenses because contact lenses are soft like a sponge, like a soft bed. They grow there and they make families and it’s a nightmare. And if you put the lens in your eye full of these little bugs they start jumping away because it’s food, and they eat away at the skin in the front of the eye and eventually they get into the nerves of the eye,” said Kaye. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Acanthamoeba keratis is a rare but serious eye infection that can lead to permanent visual impairment or blindness. The infection is caused when amoebas — microscopic, free-living organisms — attack the cornea of the eye. The infection is often associated with poor hygiene habits by contact lens wearers. Cortez rinsed her contact lenses in tap water for a few weeks in late December before she noticed any symptoms of an eye infection. Then one day she woke up and felt throbbing pain around her eyes, “so then I went to the mirror and I see my eye was pink. Very, very light pink,” she said. At a local hospital clinic they diagnosed her with pink eye, she said. The days that followed proved the diagnosis wrong. She could not stand to see the light, had constant headaches and her eyes turned bloody red. She closed all curtains in her house and turned off all lights. “Even the street lights at night, I couldn’t even see those because it would hurt,” she said. By mid-January, she became blind.

“Everything went white. Blind on both eyes. It was just white, you know how when it’s really, really foggy? Like if you’re in your car you can’t even see the hood of your car? Like that, I couldn’t see anything,” said Cortez. For nearly three months, Cortez was forced to learn how to cope without her eyesight.

“I went through a lot of anxiety. I ended up getting anxiety, high blood pressure, a lot of stress, depression. I lost a lot of my hair. I lost my job because I was a truck driver so I couldn’t go back to work and I still can’t because I still can’t see right. So that put a lot of stress on me too,” she said. Kaye said he treated Cortez with swimming pool type chemicals, but “despite the aggressive approach, the condition worsened.” He then referred her to Dr. Mark Mannis at University of California, Davis, who warned Cortez that she was at a high risk for losing the left eye completely and referred her back to Kaye. Kaye performed emergency corneal transplant surgery on her right eye and saved it. She’s now waiting for surgery on her left eye. “I grew up in Africa. I used that medication (swimming pool solution) and to my amazement and God’s blessing it worked. So she’s left with this eye that’s blind but we’re going to put a transplant in,” said Kaye. She’s endured about 15 different burning eye drops, medication and surgery; but Cortez has regained hope and strength. “When I came (back from UC Davis), Dr. Kaye came in and told me, ‘So UC Davis gave up on you huh?’ and I go, ‘Yeah, I guess.’ He goes, ‘They recommended me to take your eye out but you know, not on my time and not on my hands. I’m going to put everything I have to help you save your eye, but you have to help me too.’ So that kind of gave me hope… I was like, ‘He’s not giving up, so why should I?’,” she said. Cortez said she tells others about her ordeal and recommends contact lens wearers “not to even stick them in the water, not even if you think that it’s not going to do anything or because you say, ‘Oh, I did it yesterday it won’t happen and you wake up the following morning you’re okay it’s not going to happen.’ Or go swimming with them because swimming is the same thing. Swimming, washing them in tap water or just getting them wet with water, period.” Kaye treats about four cases of Acanthamoeba keratitis yearly, he said, “four too many.” Proper care is simple and patients should always follow their doctors directions carefully, he said. “This is not a small thing, to suddenly lose your vision, just because you went for a swim in the pool or you washed your contacts with water,” said Kaye.

Avoiding Acanthamoeba

Acanthamoeba keratis is a rare but serious eye infection that can lead to permanent visual impairment or blindness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the condition is wholly avoidable; it results from poor hygiene habits by contact lens wearers. The infection is caused when amoebas — microscopic, free-living organisms — attack the cornea of the eye. The following are warning signs to look for:

  • Eye pain
  • Eye redness
  • Blurred vision
  • Loss of vision
  • Sensitivity to light

To prevent infection, contact lens wearers should:

  • clean contact lens case and dry out weekly.
  • only use solution recommended by doctor.
  • wash hands properly.
  • take them off when swimming.
  • if eyes feel irritable, take the lenses out.

Written by Laura Nguyen

Dr. Laura Nguyen has extensive training in general ophthalmology and specializes in oculoplastic surgery (lid and orbital reconstruction, and laser skin resurfacing). She has treated thousands of Central Valley residents and their families. She is available for comprehensive eye examinations and special consultations.
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