After solar eclipse, Americans' eyes seem mostly none the worse

PHOTO: Reuters

Eye doctors who had braced themselves for at least a few patients after a dazzling solar eclipse swept the United States cautiously exhaled on Tuesday, with some hospitals reporting zero cases of damaged vision so far.

One man showed up at a New York City hospital on Tuesday with a damaged retina after acting on the mistaken belief he could safely stare at an eclipse through a hole punched in a garbage bag.

But most signs pointed to people heeding medical advice that it is never wise to gaze at the sun without eye protection, even when some of it is shaded by the moon, as it was above the heads of tens of millions of Americans on Monday.

Some ophthalmologists, however, believed they would see a small number of people with blurry vision in the coming weeks when putting off a sometimes costly or inconvenient visit to a doctor became untenable.

First eclipse in 99 years sweeps North America

  • Emotional sky-gazers stood transfixed across North America as the Sun vanished behind the Moon in a rare total eclipse that swept the continent coast-to-coast for the first time in nearly a century.
  • Eclipse chasers and amateur star watchers alike converged in cities along the path of totality,
  • a 113-kilometre wide swath cutting through 14 US states, where the Moon briefly blocked out all light from the Sun.
  • Festivals, rooftop parties, weddings, camping trips and astronomy meet-ups popped up nationwide for what NASA expected to be the most heavily photographed and documented eclipse in modern times, thanks to the era of social media.
  • Whoops and cheers rose from the crowd as totality began over Oregon, and similar cries of joy erupted roughly 90 minutes later when the phenomenon ended in Charleston, South Carolina.
  • Many had hiked to the site to avoid massive traffic jams.
  • Some watchers had fashioned their own pinhole projectors out of cardboard and scotch tape.
  • President Donald Trump watched the partial eclipse from the White House with his wife Melania and son Barron.
  • At one point, Trump glanced skywards without protective eyewear - a big no-no, according to experts. "Don't look," an aide shouted to him. He later donned glasses.
  • Experts warn that looking directly at an eclipse can cause permanent eye damage.
  • The only safe time to look at it is for those within the path of totality - and only during the brief moments when the Sun is completely blocked.

"I'm sort of amazed so far that we haven't examined anybody who has damage," Dr. M. Edward Wilson said by telephone from the Medical University of South Carolina's Storm Eye Institute in Charleston.

It was a similar story at the University of Kansas Health System in Kansas City, New York City's Health + Hospitals/Bellevue, the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha and the Casey Eye Institute in Portland, Oregon: not a blurry eye in sight.

At Nashville's Vanderbilt University Medical Center, however, seven people were scheduled to see doctors with concerns from viewing the eclipse, Dr. Shriji Patel said.

"We have opened extra clinics over the next three days, and I'm expecting them to be full," he said.

Direct exposure to the sun's ultraviolet radiation even for a fraction of a minute can be enough to overwhelm the photoreceptor cells lining the back of the eye.

The symptoms -- blind spots and blurriness -- become apparent in the following hours. It can take months, but the retina can largely heal itself if the damage is not severe.

In the largest investigation into an eclipse's effects on a nation's ocular health, doctors found 70 cases of sun-damaged retinas after an eclipse shadowed the United Kingdom in 1999, according to a 2001 paper published in Eye, a medical journal.

The paper noted this was a low incidence for a country then home to some 55 million, and symptoms cleared up for all 70 people within six months.

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