When Your Eyes Start Flashing

Susan Page
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Wednesday - October 26, 2005
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Hot flashes are common for women my age, but eye flashes?

At my high school reunion banquet in Texas last week, I was sitting with old school chums watching one of our classmates emcee the program, when it suddenly felt like several cameras across the room were taking flash pictures. Blinking to clear the after-burst in my right eye, I quickly realized that the flashes actually came FROM my eye.

This was a little disturbing to say the least. Repeated black flashes on the outside rim of my right eye were followed by lots of little, dark, squiggly worms dancing across my vision of Gus Clemens asking those who traveled farthest - that would be me - to stand. (Last reunion I lost that award to a classmate who’d flown in from Abu Dhabi!)

Surely this eye would straighten out if I kept blinking, I rationalized as I stood to receive applause for traveling 4,000 miles to hang out with fellow former “Bobcats.” Maybe some eye drops would help in the dry West Texas air.

Nothing doing. The flashes were not leaving the party. Maybe I’m just tired and jetlagged. That’s got to be it.

Now mind you, I’ve had floaters before; those elusive little black critters that dart in and out of focus like flies when you try to swat them. This was different. Maybe this is something a doctor should handle, I thought. But next stop was Colorado to visit my sister and mother, and I wouldn’t be back to Hawaii and able to see Dr. Tyrie Jenkins for another week.

Should I call my HMO and see if I’d be covered to see an eye doctor in Boulder?

Yes, good idea.

“You need to go to the emergency room right now,” the Tricare advisor said. “You could have a detached retina.”

Boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard had a detached retina after being pounded in the eye about a thousand times. How could I have that from merely sitting with old girlfriends discussing who the best kisser was at Central High?

Dreading the thought of an emergency room visit for something so seemingly minor, I argued in favor of an appointment with an ophthalmologist in the next few days. “If it were my eyes, I’d go now,” she said emphatically.

I share this story so that you will know what to do in case you ever have such flashes. Do not wait like I did. A detached retina, which thankfully I didn’t have, can cause loss of eyesight if not treated within 48 hours of the symptoms. And, surprising to me, ER admissions nurses and doctors do not treat the symptoms of flashing in the eye lightly, so don’t feel like you’re wasting their time with a petty little discomfort.

After the ER exam at 10 p.m., the physician (who happened to be from Hawaii and went to Punahou) set up an appointment with a specialist for the next day.

The first thing Dr. McDermott’s nurse asked was, “Have you had a blow to the head?” Hmmm, actually, yes, last March snow skiing, the ski lift whacked me in my right temple and a big egg rose up and nested there for weeks (I wear a helmet now). Dr. McDermott, after careful examination, allowed that the blow could’ve separated the vitreous, the gel-like substance that forms the shape of the eye, from the back of the retina, but more likely it was just a function of age. Bummers.

His diagnosis: “posterior vitreous separation.” This is not terribly uncommon as one ages and the vitreous becomes thinner. It’s basically harmless, though really annoying, unless it produces a tear or hole in the retina, in which case, you need a vitreo-retinal specialist to repair the tear. If not repaired, it could lead to a detached retina, which Sugar Ray had but luckily got re-attached.

Common “floaters,” which show up more frequently after that mid-century birthday, are tiny clumps of gel or cells inside the vitreous and what appears is really just the shadows the floaters cast on the retina.

So now you know.

Beware of flashing floaters at your high school reunion - especially if it’s your 40th!

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