Saving a 12 year old’s sight

01 May 2023

All of us will need eye care at least once in our lifetime. While it is something we often think of being linked to the aging process, even children can present with severe eye conditions requiring surgery.

Thankfully, Sydney Eye Hospital is a public hospital and a noted hub of excellence in NSW. And young Jocelyn was able to access the expertise that is in the heart of the city.

Saving a 12 year old’s sight

After a great Christmas holiday break in 2021, Jocelyn was enjoying starting Year 8 and getting back into her favourite subject, English.

But a few weeks in, she came home from school one day with startling revelation that she shared with Mum, Lynn.

“I remember it was February,” says Lynn. “Jocelyn told me the vision in her left eye was different, it was not as good as her right. And she felt it was getting worse each day.”

It was a surprise to the family as back in December, Lynn had taken her daughter to the optometrist and at the time, her vision was normal.

“I thought maybe she’d watched too many videos on the iPad during the holidays,” says Lynn. “So, assuming it was something like short-sightedness, we went back for a check-up.”

Lynn says she was in shock to find out was much more serious.

“I was really upset when we had to be referred to a specialist in Chatswood,” she says. “I was fearing the worst - afraid that she would be blind in her left eye.”

Specialists reviewed the case and diagnosed something even more shocking, Jocelyn had epiretinal membrane (ERM), a condition that is typically found in adults aged 50 plus.

An ERM is a thin layer of tissue that has formed on the retina. In Jocelyn’s case the tissue was significant and growing over the macular causing her to have blurred and distorted central vision.

“It was concerning not knowing why Jocelyn had this disease – she was so young,” says Lynn.

“But we always had hope. The specialists told us that there was a 50% chance it could get better on its own because of Jocelyn’s age. We just had to monitor the condition and go back for testing. That time gave us a few months to prepare ourselves that she may need an operation.”

Paediatric ophthalmic surgeon, Associate Professor Matthew Simunovic

When the 12-year-old’s sight rapidly deteriorated, she was referred to VR subspecialist and ophthalmic surgeon, Professor Matthew Simunovic (pictured above).

“When Jocelyn was referred to me, my colleagues had been monitoring the progression of the disease,” says Matthew.

“It had only been a few months from initial diagnosis, but the trajectory Jocelyn was on – well, she was well on the way to meeting the criteria for legal blindness in her left eye,” he says.

An operation was scheduled for July 2022. Professor Simunovic chose to do the surgery at Sydney Eye Hospital because of the access to expertise in equipment and staff.

“The operation we performed on Jocelyn was a vitrectomy with membrane peel,” says Professor Simunovic. “It’s a highly complex procedure.”

“Sydney Eye Hospital has the most highly skilled ophthalmic surgical staff, including the nursing staff who assist with this type of complex retinal surgery. They have so much experience because they deal with the greatest number of cases in the country by far,” says Professor Simunovic.

With thanks to generous donations to the Sydney Eye Hospital Foundation, the ophthalmic specialist was able to use the latest operating microscope technology at the Hospital.

“This new surgical microscope gives me a view of the eye I could not see otherwise in real-time,” says Professor Simunovic. “It gives me microscopic detail in cross section, so I can identify what is happening layer by layer in the eye.”

“This is important for knowing where to start peeling the membrane off the retina, but even more crucially, when to stop,” he says.

“Donations to the Foundation are vital,” says Professor Simunovic. “In this instance, it was donor support that enabled the funding of the microscope that saved Jocelyn’s eye.”

“We are very happy the operation was successful,” says Lynn. “Jocelyn has no problems with her vision now and can do everything she was doing before, running, jumping, reading, watching TV and playing with the iPad.”

“I feel we were lucky that Jocelyn noticed the change in her vision and told us,” Lynn continues. “But I wonder if there are vulnerable children who can’t speak up for themselves or have access to the right medical treatment.”

AProf Andrew Chang and Prof Matthew Simunovic

A/Prof Andrew Chang and Prof Matthew Simunovic

The Foundation has four funding priorities to ensure patients receive excellence in eye care when they visit Sydney Eye Hospital.

Donations to the Foundation help provide equal access to excellence in eye care, fund research and technology upgrade projects, and training of the next generation of eye specialists.

“The Foundation’s reason for being is to support the function of Sydney Eye Hospital and that’s only done with the community’s support,” says Professor Simunovic.

“That’s the right thing to do, donate!,” says Lynn. “You will be helping more people to recover their eyesight!”