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Thorn Birds Author Losing Sight

8 August 2004

Thorn Birds Author Losing Sight

“To lose your sight is terrible. I mean, the very concept of it. All the things that one misses…”

That’s how blockbuster author Colleen McCullough, creator of mega-selling novels such as The Thorn Birds, Tim and the Masters of Rome series, feels about the fact that she has been diagnosed with hemorrhagic macular degeneration.

Macular Degeneration is an eye disease that causes loss of central vision, leaving only peripheral, or side, vision intact. It is the leading cause of blindness for people over 50 in New Zealand. This week, August 9 – 14, is ARMD (Age-Related Macular Degeneration) Awareness Week, part of Save our Sight month.

“The most important message of Save our Sight month is especially relevant in relation to ARMD,” says New Zealand Association of Optometrists national director Dr Lesley Frederikson. “That is, the vital importance of having regular examinations by an optometrist.”

Dr Frederikson says early detection of any form of ARMD is vital, because lost sight can never be restored.

The macula is the most sensitive part of the retina and is responsible for clear central vision.

“When cells in this region deteriorate, vision is lost. The condition is called macular degeneration and because it is often related to ageing it is also termed age-related macular degeneration or ARMD,” Dr Frederikson says.

The two most common forms of ARMD are dry and wet.

Dry ARMD is the more common form and causes varying degrees of sight loss. In dry ARMD yellow, fatty deposits called drusen collect in the macula making vision grainy and unclear.

Wet ARMD occurs less often (around 12.5% of cases) but can cause very severe loss of sight. In wet ARMD, abnormal, leaky blood vessels develop in the macula and as the disease advances scarring occurs causing irreversible blind spots. Many cases lead to legal blindness.

“Early diagnosis by comprehensive eye examination allows people to access appropriate options for treatment, rehabilitation, and support services. Photodynamic Therapy (PDT) offers a new therapeutic tool to fight wet AMD and prompt referral is crucial to its success,” says Dr Frederikson.

“Even where degeneration of the eye has occurred, your optometrist will be able to help with spectacles and low vision aids. Retina NZ offers a telephone peer support service for people who have experienced sight loss.“

Diagnosis of Macular Degeneration during a chance visit to an ophthalmologist last year came too late for Colleen McCullough who has already lost sight in one eye. She has since entered a routine series of "gruelling" six-weekly laser treatments she hopes will stave off the damage done by aberrant blood vessels, which threaten to bleed and destroy more of her left retina, and with it her sight.

She is now patron of the Macular Degeneration Foundation Australia, set up by retinal specialists Dr Paul Beaumont and Professor Paul Mitchell, who both trained in ophthalmology at the Prince of Wales Hospital under Fred Hollows. Professor Mitchell gave a series of seminars in New Zealand as part of Save our Sight month last year.

"I'm flying on one eye and hoping and hoping and hoping that I keep it for as long as I can, and when it goes it'll go and I'll just have to cross that bridge,” Colleen McCullough said.

The annual Save our Sight campaign is supported by the New Zealand Association of Optometrists, Retina New Zealand and the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind (RNZFB), along with Glaucoma New Zealand, Diabetes NZ, the Save Sight Society and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmology.


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