Blind threat to teaching

Melanie Kell

Val Nicholson started to notice things in the house weren’t straight.

Four years ago Val Nicholson’s much-loved career as a primary school teacher was under threat. Diagnosed with macular degeneration in both eyes, she was at risk of going blind.

Macular degeneration is Australia’s leading cause of blindness in people over the age of 50. It causes loss of central vision, which is vital to your ability to read, drive, work, enjoy hobbies — many of the everyday activities we take for granted. Because macular degeneration occurs at the back of the eye an eye test by an optometrist or ophthalmologist is essential, as you can have the very early signs without even knowing.

Val’s ophthalmologist spotted drusen — an early indicator of macular degeneration — at the back of both her eyes and warned her to be wary of any sudden changes to her vision, which would require urgent attention. The warning was

“I started to notice things in the house weren’t straight. Edges of doors were a little bit wavy and the tile grouting too — I didn’t realise at the time that I’d had a major bleed at the back of my left eye.”

Val said she was going through a busy time in her life and waited three weeks before calling the ophthalmologist to make an appointment. When she explained the symptoms he called her in

“He told me off for leaving it so long to see him and arranged for me to see a retina specialist that very afternoon. I was diagnosed with the wet form of macular degeneration in both eyes and had my first treatment the next day.”

Val had both eyes treated for 18 months until her eye specialist was satisfied that her right eye had stabilised. She continues to have her left eye treated on a monthly basis.

“It took a while to accept the treatment regime but now every time I go in to see my retina specialist I remind myself of how lucky I am to have been diagnosed at a time when treatment is available. If I’d been diagnosed four years earlier, there would have been no way to stabilise my sight,” said Val.

Treatment enabled Val to continue in her role as a part-time teacher for a further three years until she was ready to retire
aged 70.

Macular Disease Foundation Australia chief executive officer Julie Heraghty said it was essential that people have their eyes tested regularly — especially people with a direct family history of the disease who have a 50 per cent chance of getting macular degeneration.

“If you experience any changes in your vision, don’t think you’re just getting older, experiencing eye strain or feeling tired. See your optometrist or ophthalmologist immediately. The earlier treatment is started for the wet form of macular degeneration, the more likely it is that vision can be saved. Delayed treatment increases the likelihood of losing sight.”

It’s a message that Val is keen to enforce. “I tell people never to delay in having their eyes checked. If you have an inkling that something is not right you need to have you eyes checked as soon as you possibly can.”

The Macular Disease Foundation Australia provides free information packs and advice on disease symptoms and the support services available for people with macular degeneration. The Foundation can also provide a free Amsler grid, which enables people to check for changes in their vision at home, though this does not replace a professional eye test.

Phone 1800 111 709 or visit for further

Melanie Kell is a communication consultant with the Macular Disease Foundation Australia.