A keen sportsman who got contact lenses to improve his sight when playing football (soccer for those in the USA) has told how he was blinded after wearing them in the shower, when a parasite started living in his right eye.
During 18 months of hell, Nick Humphreys, 29, of Shrewsbury, Shropshire, has had two operations on his eye and is now waiting for a corneal transplant, after contracting Acanthamoeba keratitis (AK), a rare parasitical infection in his right cornea.
Nick, a local newspaper journalist, said:
“If I'd have known how dangerous it was to wear contacts in the shower, I would never have got them in the first place."
Nick wearing glassesPA Real Life/Collect
“After getting the infection, I went from hitting the gym every other day and playing football three times a week, to being housebound for six months and losing the will to live."
“I got contacts as I didn't like how I looked in glasses and it nearly cost me my right eye."
Wearing spectacles for short sight since he was four, by 2013, wanting to improve his looks and his sight doing sport, Nick opted for monthly lenses, costing roughly £25 ($31) a time.
Nick after contracting the infectionPA Real Life/Collect
Fitness mad and a keen football player, Nick, who is single, said:
“In my mid-twenties I really started to throw myself into exercise and at the time I thought my glasses were a massive hindrance."
“When I finally got over my fear of putting contacts in, I thought they were the best thing ever."
Alternating his eye wear to give himself a break from lenses, he would use his contacts up to five days a week, wearing glasses on the other days.
“On a standard morning I'd wake up, pop my lenses in and head to the gym before work, then I'd jump in the shower before heading to the office."
“I thought nothing of it at the time. I was never told not to wear contact lenses in the shower, there's no warning on the packaging and my opticians never mentioned a risk."
Nick only realized something was wrong in January 2018, when he noticed a scratch on his right eye.
Nick before he contracted the infectionPA Real Life/Collect
Waking up one morning unable to see through it properly, he assumed he had scratched his eye putting his lenses in, but as the week progressed it became clear something much more serious had happened.
“For a few days I used over the counter eye drops and turned all my phone and computer display settings down to the lowest brightness, which seemed to do the trick."
Deciding to go to the optician, Nick was told he had an ulcer on his eye and advised to go to the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital immediately.
Nick prepping for surgeryPA Real Life/Collect
There, after being seen by a handful of eye specialists, he had five scrapings from his right eye sent away to be tested.
“The doctors said they couldn't be sure what was happening until they had the test results back, but that they thought it might be Acanthamoeba keratitis (AK)."
It is an infection of the cornea – the clear window at the front of the eye – caused by a microscopic organism called Acanthamoeba, which is found in water.
“I'd never heard of the infection before, but as soon as I got home I turned to Dr Google and was suddenly left thinking I was going to have my right eyeball removed."
A week later, doctors told Nick he had tested positive for AK, leaving him fearing his footballing days were over.
“I told the doctor that I'd read a few horror stories about it and asked if I would need to have my eye removed."
Nick before he contracted the infection (PA Real Life/Collect)
“He just looked at me and said, 'That could well be a possibility."
“That's when I realized it was serious."
After using disinfectant eye drops for three weeks, it seemed that Nick was on the mend, but by March 2018 he suddenly found himself completely blind in his right eye.
“I was driving to work and my vision completely went in my right eye," he recalled.
“I don't know how I managed not to crash, but it didn't take me long to realize I needed to get back to the hospital."
Referred to the Birmingham and Midland Eye Centre, doctors prescribed higher strength eye drops that needed to be applied hourly – even at night.
After weeks of sleepless nights and unable to work, Nick was left housebound and depressed, while doctors tried to decide the best course of action.
“I love my job but I physically couldn't be outside the house."
“The pain in my eye was too much and the only time I would leave was to visit the hospital."
“I felt at my absolute lowest and the one thing that would cheer me up – playing football – was no longer an option."
Nick before contracting the infectionPA Real Life/Collect
Six months after his initial diagnosis, doctors decided the only option left was to perform a corneal cross linking.
Usually used to treat keratoconus – an eye disorder causing thinning of the cornea – it involves using ultraviolet light and vitamin B2 drops to stiffen the cornea. Employed together, the treatments bond fibers in the cornea more tightly.
While the procedure – performed in July last year – cleared the infection, Nick remained blind in his right eye.
“Obviously, I didn't want to be blind in my right eye, but at least, knowing the infection had gone, I could start to get my life back on track. I could finally return to work and start to hit the gym."
But Nick still needed further treatment and in September 2018, he had an amniotic membrane transplant to his right cornea at the Birmingham and West Midland Eye Centre.
The procedure involves grafting tissue from the amniotic membrane – the innermost layer of the placenta – on to the eye to protect the cornea. It has anti-inflammatory and anti-scarring effects, as well as containing growth factors that promote wound healing on the surface of the eye.
While the treatment was a success, by Christmas 2018, following the second operation, Nick's mood plummeted.
“The reality of the situation had well and truly hit me, I'd let myself go since all of this happened and I was left with a gory-looking eye I had to cover with an eye patch – looking like something out of The Exorcist."
After being referred to a counsellor by the GP, Nick has slowly come to terms with his condition.
Nick before he contracted the infectionPA Real Life/Collect
Working with the charity Fight for Sight to raise awareness about the danger of using contact lenses while showering or swimming has also helped.
“I can honestly say if I'd had the slightest idea that this was even a remote possibility I would never have worn contacts in the first place. It's crucial that people out there know this is a reality and it can happen because of something as simple as getting in the shower."
Now just six weeks away from a corneal transplant – an operation that replaces a damaged cornea with healthy donor tissue from someone who has died – Nick is counting down the days until the procedure, booked for August 15 at Birmingham and Midland Eye Centre.
“I've lost 18 months of my life because of something as simple as showering with contacts in. If I get my sight back I'll never wear contacts again. Instead, like Edgar Davids – the former Dutch professional footballer – I'll wear some prescription goggles to do sport instead."
A YouGov poll for Fight for Sight revealed that a large proportion of UK contact lens wearers are putting their eyesight at risk through unsafe habits, unaware that they could develop infections like Acanthamoeba keratitis (AK).
A worrying 56 per cent of people polled said they wore them for longer than the recommended 12 hours a day, 54 per cent said they had swum or showered in them and 47 per cent had slept in them. Meanwhile, 15 per cent of respondents had put them in their mouth to clean or lubricate them and two per cent had even shared used lenses with other wearers.
For more information visit www.fightforsight.org.uk