Dick Lee: 'Every day I worry I might go blind'

Singer-songwriter Dick Lee has struggled with vision problems from a young age - to the extent that he almost went blind.

He started wearing glasses at the age of three, and by the time he turned 21, his myopia was above 2,000 degrees, making him "blind" without the aid of spectacles or contact lens.

Lee, who will be 60 next month, told The New Paper over the phone on Wednesday: "When I was 21, I had (rhegmatogenous) retinal detachment. On my left eye, the retina was torn, and on my right eye, it was detached. This was the result of extreme myopia."

This happened to Lee after he completed his full-time national service and was celebrating his 21st birthday at his own punk-themed party.

He recalled: "I was doing the pogo dance, which involved very high-impact movement. This can be quite bad for the eyes.

"The next morning, I saw black spots in my vision. It was like the flashing light you see when someone takes a picture."

Lee visited the late renowned eye surgeon Professor Arthur Lim, who got Lee admitted to Mount Alvernia Hospital for surgery.

"I had the operation immediately because Dr Lim found that my retina was already detached," said Lee.

After the operation, he had to remain in the hospital for two to three weeks to recuperate. His scope of vision in the left eye was also slightly affected by the operation.

"I remember the first few days. I had to lie prone for a week and sleep with two blocks under my head because I couldn't move my head, and my hands were tied just in case I scratched my eyes.

"There was no pain at all in my eyes, the rest of me felt completely fine."

RELAPSE

While the operation was successful, he would suffer a relapse of the retinal detachment roughly every 10 years.

"It has happened maybe three times. I live with the worry each day (that I might go blind). That's why I have resolved to treasure every day."

When Lee was in his 40s, he had cataracts in one eye, and in his 50s, he developed cataracts in the other eye.

"Most people have it when they are old. My father had it only when he was in his 80s," said Lee.

He underwent separate operations to remove the cataracts in both eyes, and found that, after years of extreme myopia, he could now see perfectly with visual aids.

"Can you imagine? I started wearing glasses when I was three and contact lenses when I was 18, but suddenly I don't need to wear them any more. It's very liberating," Lee said.

Though he has perfect eyesight now, he visits his eye doctor for annual check-ups because he is at high risk for glaucoma.

Last year, Lee was asked by Adjunct Associate Professor Ho Ching Lin, director of philanthropy at the Singapore National Eye Centre (SNEC), to be the ambassador for the VisionSave campaign.

The philanthropic campaign, jointly run by SNEC and the Singapore Eye Research Institute, was launched on Tuesday to raise awareness about eye health and raise money to deliver better patient care and services. 

Lee said: "I think it's a wonderful and good cause. I want to help them raise awareness and encourage people to raise funds for the campaign."

Retinal detachment

Singer-songwriter Dick Lee's myopia was more than 2,000 degrees by the time he turned 21. Adjunct Associate Professor Ho Ching Lin, director of philanthropy at the Singapore National Eye Centre (SNEC), explains what retinal detachment is and how a person copes with high myopia.

What is retinal detachment?

It is a condition where the retina detaches from the eye. Retinal detachment happens when there is a tear or break in the retina, and fluid gets through the hole, which causes the retina to detach from the back of the eye.

What will happen if one doesn't seek treatment immediately?

If retinal detachment is not repaired, complete blindness can occur.

What are the symptoms of retinal detachment?

Floaters (black spots or lines), flashes (flashing lights) and shadow curtains (dark shapes at the side of the visual field) in one's vision, peripheral vision field becoming smaller or blurred vision are some of the symptoms.

Who is most likely to have retinal detachment?

Retinal detachment can occur in all age groups, but it's more common in middle age - those in their 40s and 50s - because ageing can cause the vitreous gel (a jelly-like substance) in the eye to contract and become liquefied, which can pull on the retina and result in a tear.

However, people who have had trauma in their eye (such as getting punched), have high myopia, have a history of eye surgery (such as cataract surgery), have genetic diseases, or have a family history that is predisposed to retinal detachment, are more prone to getting it at a younger age.

What does it feel like to have myopia of more than 2,000 degrees?

They can't see at all without glasses or contact lens unless the object is very close. The more myopic you are, the more you have to hold the object closer to you.

Is having myopia of 2,000 degrees considered legally blind?

If you don't wear glasses, you are "blind", but it's not "legally blind" because with glasses you can see. Myopia is just a pure refractive error, which means you can correct your vision by wearing glasses to make it 20/20 vision.

Just 16, she's had four eye operations

Teenager Megan Goh has had to cope with an eye condition since birth.

The 16-year-old was diagnosed with congenital cataract when she was only two weeks old, which means she was born with opacity in the lens of the eye.

Her mother, Madam Choi Hoi San, 51, noticed a layer of whiteness in her daughter's right eye and took her to the doctor.

When she was three months old, her eye condition developed into glaucoma, an optic nerve disease that can eventually result in blindness if not treated.

Madam Choi, an assistant director in a staff capability development industry, told The New Paper over the phone: "It was a horrible feeling because I didn't know what that was and (all I thought was), 'How come my daughter has this thin film over her eye?'.

"It was a frightening and heart-rending moment when the doctor was telling us about all the worst-case scenarios."

Even before she turned four, Megan had gone through four eye operations. Her medical bills so far total more than $100,000.

SWIMMING

Despite Megan's condition, Madam Choi always made sure that her daughter "was not handicapped" in any way.

She said: "I tried to let her go swimming and do as many things as she wanted to. I tried not to let her feel that she was restricted because of her eyes."

Megan's doctor, Adjunct Associate Professor Ho Ching Lin, told TNP: "Congenital cataract can happen to anyone of any age. The rates may vary, but up to 50 per cent or more of patients can get glaucoma in their lifetime after congenital cataract surgery."

Megan, who studies at Singapore Chinese Girls' School, told TNP: "(My condition) doesn't really affect me now, but in primary school, I had to wear an eye patch on my left eye to prevent lazy eye. A lot of people teased me and it bothered me. As a kid in Primary 1, I felt quite sad."

Every year in secondary school, when she gets a new form teacher, her mother has to write to the school to request that she be allowed to sit near the front of the class so she could see the whiteboard more clearly.

Megan said: "I don't feel left out. But I sometimes feel disabled because when we're having lectures and we're seated far away from the screen, my friends are able to copy the notes, but I have to copy from them."

Since she was about three months old, she has had to wear a contact lens in her right eye as well as spectacles.

She said: "It's kind of a bother to have to wear contact lens and glasses every day, so sometimes I do think to myself, 'Why must my eye be like that? A lot of my friends have perfect eyesight, so why not me?'.

"But I guess that sometimes these things can't be helped. I just have to live with it."

tracylow@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on July 22, 2016.
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