When Sue McGiven had to deliver the heartbreaking news to her son that he would never see out of his right eye again, there was one call she had to make first.
As the Whangarei mother waited for her son Jared (19) to wake from his failed eye surgery, she dialled the number of Des White, the optometrist who she believes should have acted sooner to try to save Jared’s sight.
“I said, ‘I just want you to know what I’m going to have to do. I’m sitting here waiting for Jared to come back from surgery and I have to tell him that he’s never going to see out of his eye again.’ And then I hung up– he’d said nothing,” says Sue. After Sue complained to the Health and Disability Commissioner about Jared’s treatment, the Northland optometrist was suspended for six months, ordered to work under supervision for 18 months and pay costs of $10,000, after he was found guilty of professional misconduct.
It’s cold comfort to Jared and Sue that if an optometrist had referred the Whangarei teenager to an eye specialist sooner, he may still have full sight.
Jared had no idea that his vision was deteriorating until he failed an eye test as part of getting his driver’s licence, aged 16. When he went to the optometrist, Des was unable to diagnose his condition but asked him to return again for further investigation.
After Jared was referred to a specialist two months after his first appointment, a specialist diagnosed a detaching retina and arranged urgent surgery within three days.
The surgeon told Sue that, based on Jared’s symptoms, he thought the optometrist should have spotted the eye condition which can lead to blindness. However, Jared and his mother expected his vision would be the same, or better, after an operation to re-attach the retina. Neither knew that it would be the start of nine operations, during which Jared lost sight in his right eye.
“It didn’t even enter our minds that it wouldn’t work,” says Sue. “So five weeks down the track when we went for a check and found it was detached, we were stunned.” After another four surgeries to try and save Jared’s sight, doctors found that his retina was too badly damaged and that he would never see out of the eye again.
The surgeon rang Sue from the operating theatre. “He said, ‘I have really bad news.’ My heart stopped, I thought he was going to tell me Jared had died. So when he said the retina had detached for the last time, for a second it was a relief. But then I had to sit there and wait for Jared to come back from surgery and tell him that he was never going to see out of that eye again, which was really hard,” says Sue.
When Jared woke, he thought the operation had gone well. “I saw Mum in tears and thought they were tears of joy. When Mum said I wasn’t going to see out of that eye again, I thought she was kidding, but then I realised she was genuinely upset so then I knew.”
Jared’s eye surgeon says he would have expected a far better outcome if his first surgery had been done earlier.
The McGiven family is angry that Jared does not qualify for ACC, even though it has been established that he has been the victim of negligence.
“ACC didn’t accept the claim on a technical issue. They know it was malpractice. The problem is the delay in their mind only ‘possibly’ affected the outcome, not ‘probably’, which they need for the Act,” Sue explains.
So far, Jared’s surgeries have totalled $80,000, and while the McGivens are thankful they have health insurance, they say this doesn’t cover the cost of the many trips to Auckland for Jared’s appointments.
He has been fitted with a false eye and suffered another setback when an operation to ease some of his pain resulted in damage to his eyelid, which could require another operation to fix.
Coming to terms with a lack of sight in his right eye has been slow for Jared, who is nervous about learning how to drive and doesn’t bother talking to girls.
“Cosmetically I’ve lost all confidence in myself. Because of the eye patch I don’t really talk to anyone. I stay in my room virtually all day,” says Jared, who hopes his eyelid will heal so he won’t have to wear the patch.
“I just want a good cosmetic result so I can get on with things.”
“Jared has been so strong through this,” adds Sue.
“I guess you have to learn to roll with each knock and pick yourself up.”
This is caused when the retina, which is crucial to eyesight, peels away from the blood vessels that provide it with oxygen. Symptoms include:
• Flashes of light in the peripheral vision.
• A sudden increase in the number of “floaters”, bits of debris in the field of vision.
• A shadow or curtain over a portion of your visual field that develops as the detachment progresses (In Jared’s case he was losing sight at the top of his visual field).
• A slight feeling of heaviness in the eye.
• Surgery is almost always required to repair the eye. It may take many months to improve afterwards and some people don’t recover any lost vision.