A few weeks ago, when I had my eyes dilated during my annual exam at a local optometry college, I learned some surprising news. Despite the fact that I have very dry eyes from Sjogren’s Syndrome, I might actually be able to wear contact lenses.
These are not your normal contacts, but scleral contact lenses, typically prescribed for people with irregular corneas. They are gas-permeable, but larger and lofted higher than regular contacts, essentially floating on a saline solution over the entire cornea and resting slightly beyond the iris on the white of the eye. For people with severe dry eyes, like me, they can provide constant lubrication.
So, I decided to find out more. Last Thursday, I went back to the college—which operates a teaching optometry clinic—and met with one of their dry eye faculty specialists, along with a fourth year student. Another fourth year student ended up joining us, because she had written her first year research paper on scleroderma.
There were two major questions to answer: First, could we actually get a pair of sample scleral contacts into my eyes; second, would my hands enable me to do this for myself? The lenses are inserted using a little plunger. You fill the lens with solution and then bring your eye down to it. Not an easy feat. It took three tries on each eye by the specialist, with me holding down my lower lid and him holding the upper lid and the lens-with-plunger, to get it in. But we did it.
Miraculously, I could see more clearly, just because of the moisture being trapped by the lenses, even as they were not prescription. However, the big challenge is that my upper eyelids are abnormally thick from scleroderma. Hard enough for two people to insert the contacts. Also, I could feel the lenses underneath my upper lids when I blinked—possibly because my eyelids are less flexible. And they burned a little, possibly because the whites of my eyes were drier since I didn’t need to blink as often as I normally do.
We were all excited that I could actually wear them, but this is far from a home run. The specialist gave me a 50:50 chance of eventual success, but wanted to go the distance if I was willing. There are a lot of customized adjustments he can make to the size and shape of the lenses, as well as a special coating that will keep the outside wetter and less irritating to my inner eyelid. There are also a lot of adaptive tools to enable me to insert them myself. But we’ll only know with the real thing.
Fortunately, with these lenses, there is a try-out period, and if they don’t work, I could return them for a full refund as well as a partial refund of the exam fee. The clinic staff will research whether this is covered by Medicare and my Medex plan. I have no idea if it will be successful, but I feel like it’s worth a try, because if it does work, my eyes will be healthier and vision much clearer than I thought possible.
In the meantime, the students are learning a lot from our meeting. As the lead student said to me, “I have a million questions going through my head.” “Fire away,” I answered. At the very least, whatever happens, he’ll know how to better diagnose someone with my complex issues in the future. Well worth the time.
Image: Siora Photography