"There were no symptoms" - why eye checks are important for people with diabetes

Trish was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1975, at the age of 17. In 1990, during a routine check-up with her doctor, he noticed some changes in her eyes and sent her to an eye specialist.

“I hadn’t noticed anything at all,” she said. “There were no symptoms. But the ophthalmologist said I had diabetic retinopathy.”

The condition, where the tiny blood vessels at the back of the eye are damaged, is the most common eye problem in people with diabetes. In the early stages, it has no symptoms.

Trish had to undergo more than 10 rounds of thermal laser therapy, with more than 3000 laser shots in each eye. “It was very painful but being blind would be far more unpleasant,” she said. It turned out the treatment was just in time; not long after it had started Trish had bad haemorrhages in both eyes. “Some of the veins bled and I was completely blind for three months. It was very frightening.”

The laser therapy is used to minimise blood vessel leakage so it saved Trish’s sight. “If the haemorrhaging had happened before I had the laser treatment, I wouldn’t be able to see now.”

Trish’s experience is a warning to the 630,000 Australians with diabetes who are at risk of vision loss or blindness because they aren’t having regular eye checks.

Diabetes Australia is encouraging everyone with diabetes to sign up to KeepSight, a new, free national program that will remind you when it’s time for an eye test.

Trish’s sight gradually returned as the blood drained from the vitreous gel in her eyes. “I could watch a bit of TV because of the brightness of the screen but it was like looking through black lace curtains,” she said. “I measured my sight returning by watching TV and being able to see more and more. I was so grateful that my sight returned.”

Now 61, Trish has no night or field vision – her close-up peripheral vision. “I can see what I’m looking at but if someone is really close to me on my left or right, I can’t see them. If someone puts their hand out for me to shake, I don’t see it.

“I bump into people all the time at the shopping centre when they cut across me because I don’t see them, which can be embarrassing. I’m a lot more careful with my movements than I used to be.”

Trish, who lives in Melbourne, can still drive but not at night because of her night vision loss. “I crash into things at night all the time, even indoors. We’ve had to install several night lights all over the house.”

But she hasn’t let her vision loss interfere with her life. She still works part time as a business manager – “I’m only in trouble if someone turns out the lights!” – and enjoys spending time with her husband, Steve, two daughters and three grandchildren, aged five, eight and 13.

“My grandchildren are wonderful,” she said. “When we go to the movies, they’ll grab hold of my arm to make sure I don’t trip over in the theatre. The only time my eyes affect me with my grandkids is if I’m on babysitting duties; I have to stay the night because I can’t drive home.”

Trish now gets her eyes checked every six to 12 months and is thankful her condition was caught early. “When I was diagnosed with type 1 it was drummed into me that you need to get your eyes checked every two years. I’m very lucky my doctor saw my eye problem when he did. I think your sight is your most important sense.”

She urges everyone with diabetes to have regular eye tests. “I can’t understand why people don’t get their eyes checked. You can go to an optometrist and they do it for free. It’s such an easy thing to do.”

People registered with KeepSight will also receive important eye health information. “It’s really important to get all the available information,” said Trish. “Knowledge is power. The more you know, the less likely you are to get yourself into trouble. It’s a tragedy that so many people don’t get their eyes checked.”

To find out more and register visit www.keepsight.org.au