I was eight-and-a-half months pregnant with my first baby and except for the insomnia and swollen ankles, my pregnancy didn’t have complications. All of that changed one day, however, when I went to put on eyeliner one morning and I couldn’t see clearly out of my right eye. It was like a cloud moved in and was blocking the centre of my vision. I didn’t panic right away because I had recently switched over to contact lenses from eyeglasses, so I assumed that I had poked or scratched my eyeball while trying to get them out the day before. But when my vision did not improve, and after talking to my mother-in-law (who happens to be a retired ophthalmologist), I made an emergency appointment with an optometrist.
The next day, I waddled to the office, and after having my eye examined, the doctor asked me questions no one ever wants to hear: “Has anyone in your family ever died of sudden brain aneurysm?” “Do you have a history of high blood pressure or atherosclerosis?” “Do you have diabetes, glaucoma, lymphoma, or leukemia?” At this point, I started to sweat and the color faded from my face. I put my head between my legs — well, as best as I could with a gigantic belly in the way— and waited for the symptoms to pass. I’ll never forget the look on his face as I stripped off my clothes, half rolling on the floor like a beached whale trying desperately to cool off.
Once I regained my composure, he took some pictures of my eyes and showed me the difference on his computer screen. My left side had a circle in the middle with veins coming out, like it should; my right eye looked like a bomb had exploded. You could not see the circle or the veins, just blobs of blood. He said he thought I had a retinal vein occlusion and suggested that I see an ophthalmologist as soon as possible. We then talked about what could have caused the condition, which usually occurs in older people with health problems that affect blood flow. We still don’t know the exact reason for my occlusion, but I have my suspicions. Just a few days before it occurred, I learned that my baby was breech and that I’d have no choice but to schedule a c-section. This was devastating news to me, like many first-time mothers, I had a birth plan and surgery was not in it. I remember feeling very funny after receiving the news, and suspect it spiked my blood pressure. I’m not the best with hospitals or blood or needles, so I was frightened by the idea that my first child would enter the world through a major operation.
At this point, the optometrist told me he would send a referral to the ophthalmologist and they would contact me with my appointment day and time. I then updated my OB, and since I was only days away from my scheduled c-section, we kept my date. I had already left work for maternity leave so all I had to do was wait.
After I gave birth, I couldn’t get an appointment with the ophthalmologist for another three weeks. They told me to expect to be at the appointment for three hours, wtf! I had barely left the house and now I had to sit in a waiting room with a newborn for three hours! I asked my mother-in-law to come with me for support. When we arrived, I was the youngest person in the waiting room by at least 100 years — I remember thinking, “What am I doing here?” After this eye drop and that eye drop, I finally went in to see the doctor while my daughter stayed in the waiting room with my mother-in-law. All I remember about this conversation was that 1) I would have to get injections in my eye 2) Each injection would cost $1,200 USD and I would have to have at least six 3) The injection is not approved for breastfeeding. I also remember seeing pictures of my eye on the doctor’s computer screen. My eye looked like a gigantic hill, which I found out later meant it was super swollen, and the injections were meant to reduce the swelling. I left the room, sat down next to my mother-in-law, grabbed a magazine that was close by, covered my face and started to cry. I then made my appointment for the first injection and went out to the car where I fed my daughter and cried some more.
Once I got home and calmed myself, I shared the news with my husband and immediate family, and we began our own research. My main priority was being able to feed my daughter. My sister suggested I contact Motherisk at The Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto, which specializes in safety on exposure in pregnancy and lactation. They were super helpful, and research showed that I could continue breastfeeding but would need to bottle feed and pump and dump for 24 hours after the injection. I was not one of those mothers who produced boatloads of milk, so it took me a while to pump enough milk to get me through 24 hours.
My first injection appointment was a blur, I was so nervous and didn’t know what to expect. Turns out even when you know what to expect it’s still just as brutal. If my memory serves me, the first thing the assistant did was give me some numbing drops and clean out my eye with what looked like iodine (the tissue I used to wipe my eye was yellow afterwards). This part stung badly. Then the doctor came in and said he was now going to freeze my eye and give me the injection. Guess what, freezing an eyeball also takes a needle! People have asked me, “But what if you moved?” Trust me, you don’t breathe when someone is sticking a needle in your eye. Then, they put some contraption in my eye to keep it open and that’s when the second needle came, followed by a patch that I had to wear for a few hours.
To my disappointment, the first injection, followed by five more, did not reduce the swelling and it was evident that I would not regain vision in the centre of my eye due to scarring. The swelling was still a concern, so we tried a different type of steroid which was also unsuccessful. I continued with the regular course of treatment for several more months and when we started talking about having another child (two years later) I stopped.
This experience made me realize that I’m not invincible and “bad things” could happen to me. As a new mother this caused me to have a lot of anxiety. In addition to the regular new mom concerns — is my baby breathing, will my baby wake up, am I feeding them enough, are they pooping enough — I also worried about this happening to my other eye and what if I do have an underlying health issue that caused this to happen in the first place.
To this day, I continue to suffer from anxiety and this particular topic sets it into overdrive. I've learned to manage it by investing in myself. I am the best mom to my kids when I show up as my best self and that means staying active, making healthy choices, and doing things that make me happy — all things that I can control. I talk to my kids about being grateful and how important it is to take care of themselves but the best lesson is really leading by example.
Today I go for an annual check up to monitor the health of my eyes. The hope is that maybe one day they’ll be able to inject healthy stem cells where I have the scarring but that is still many years away. Until then I will try my best to be present with my kids and the people I love and not allow this one set back to dictate the rest of my life.