A leisurely rail journey might sound like the perfect way to see outback NSW, but not when you’ve been told your eye could explode within 24-hours. John Reid shares with us his harrowing journey.
Forest Hill in New South Wales is a 15-minute drive from Wagga Wagga, a vibrant regional centre on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River. This is where 29-year-old John now lives with his wife Telika.
His formative years were spent in another regional centre and as a rough and tumble, football-loving boy he struggled with his eyesight.
“The adults thought I was misbehaving, until one day they realised I literally couldn’t see the chalk board in class,” says John.
A check up at the optometrist revealed the young teenager had keratoconus. It’s estimated that one in every 84 Australian young people has the condition. Dr Alex Hamilton from Sydney Eye Hospital explains.
“Keratoconus is a condition in which the cornea changes shape and takes on a cone shape,” says Dr Hamilton.
“There is a spectrum of severity that occurs ranging from mild visual disturbance through to severe vision loss. As a young person, John's case was quite severe, and in these circumstances corneal transplantation is the only solution to improve vision,” he says.
However, all those years ago surgeons only performed the transplant surgery on John’s right eye.
“They felt the left eye was so bad there wasn’t much that could be done for it,” says John.
Fast forward to January 2021 and totally unrelated to his pre-existing eye condition, John got an alarming infection that sent him to Wagga Wagga Base Hospital for help.
“My right eye had been irritated, until one morning I woke up and it was swollen shut and oozing,” says John.
The doctor examining John said the infection was so bad his eye could explode within 24-hours.
It would be a restless night before an ophthalmology specialist would be available at the hospital to properly diagnose and treat John.
“After getting literally no sleep – I was worrying about my sight, my job, my life! – I went back to the hospital the next day to see the eye specialist,” says John.
The problem was an abscess. He was given drops to stop the infection getting worse, but he would need to get to a clinic 450 kilometres away at Sydney Eye Hospital to ensure he didn’t lose his vision.
A long way from home
“It was incredibly hard getting to Sydney,” says John. “It’s a seven-and-a-half-hour train trip from Wagga Wagga and I was in pain and couldn’t see properly.”
After that first trip to Sydney, where specialised treatment saved his eye, John made the exhausting 15-hour round journey for follow up appointments to monitor the healing process.
“There is a lot to navigate, from not being able to judge the distance between the gap and the train to actually getting around a big, unfamiliar city,” he says.
Access to expert treatment through the public hospital system is vital for people like John.
“The doctors in Wagga Wagga are good, but they just don’t have the level of expertise and the diagnostic tools to be able to deal with my condition,” he says.
The good news is, Sydney Eye Hospital has announced that a new ophthalmology outreach clinic in regional and remote areas of NSW will provide in-person services as well as virtual care capabilities for eye patients who, like John, would ordinarily have to travel great distances at great expense to receive the sight-saving care they need.
“We recognise that for patients such as John who live long distances from Sydney Eye Hospital follow up appointments are challenging,” says Dr Hamilton.
“It is fantastic that the Sydney Eye Hospital Foundation is helping to provide outreach clinics that can reduce the travel burden for patients,” he says.
And John agrees.
“It would be extremely helpful if there was a local clinic for check-ups to remove the hassle and run-around of getting to Sydney,” says John.
“Not just for me, but I also think about all the elderly people I see on the packed regional trains coming in from Orange and Bathurst,” John says.
Healing the past
In 2023, John was back on a train to Sydney for surgery that was deemed too complex all those years ago.
“Even though the focus had been on my right eye with the abscess, the Sydney Eye Hospital specialists looked at my left one and said they could do the corneal transplant. I immediately went on the wait the list for surgery,” John says.
“I was crossing my fingers – I knew there was a chance it could fail but I trusted the doctor’s expertise and knew I was in the best possible hands,” says John.
“It has been a long process because COVID held up my surgery date, and it won’t really be until 2024 until we really know what the outcome will be,” he says.
“A corneal transplant is a very complex medical procedure which is routinely performed at Sydney Eye Hospital. It is highly specialised surgery and requires a highly trained team to achieve successful results,” says Dr Hamilton.
“Approximately 16 sutures are placed during surgery and then removed after one year. For John, once all the sutures are removed his transplant will be ready for a new contact lens and with this we hope he will achieve very good vision,” Dr Hamilton says.
In the meantime, John continues to heal, hope, and he looks forward to a new world of opportunities that are opening for him.
“My sight may never be good enough to get my driver’s license, but I’ve signed up to do an online business course that I really hope I can do next year,” he says.
“But the best thing is, soon I’ll be able to see my wife properly for the first time ever!”