“If I am right, Rhys might regain at least some of his sight. If I am wrong, he will lose it all”

We rarely, if ever give any consideration to visual degeneration. If we do, it’s generally an afterthought. Something that happens with age so gradually that it goes almost unseen. This definitely was not the case for Rhys Herriott, who at 20 years of age, was plunged into complete darkness in a matter of hours. Not as a result of an unfortunate accident, but a simple infection that quickly snowballed, causing his immune system to attack his sense of sight.

As a keen photographer, Rhys already had a thorough understanding of the importance of sight, as his hobby is focussed on the capturing, collection, and reproduction of images. He constantly would see images worth sharing but through a cruel twist of fate, he almost lost the ability to even experience this for himself.

It began as a Sunday like any other, nothing out of the ordinary. What started as a slight blur in Rhys’ right eye, easily dismissed as dust or an eyelash, quickly deteriorated and within a few hours he was incapable of even reading with his right eye. Unable to safely drive, he has to be taken to the hospital where he is diagnosed with sinusitis, given antibiotics and an appointment in 3 days to reassess.

Rhys doesn’t make it to his appointment. He wakes up Tuesday morning completely blind in his right eye, with vision in his left fading quickly as well. With no definitive diagnosis and his sight rapidly deteriorating, Rhys was at serious risk of losing his sight permanently. Luckily, he was able to see QEI Clinic’s Dr Anthony Pane, a neuro-ophthalmologist with 18 years of training, for a second option.

Despite his eyeballs appearing completely healthy, his vision continued to deteriorate. This led Dr Pane to suspect that the issue was not with his eyes at all. “We don’t see with our eyes, they simply take the pictures that need to be made sense of by the brain. If a healthy brain and healthy eyes aren’t connected by a healthy optic nerve, we can’t see a thing. These nerves can be damaged in a number of ways such as trauma, tumours, infection, and inflammation.” Like a damaged spinal cord leads to paralysis, a damaged optic nerve leads to blindness.

Dr Pane suspected ‘post-infectious optic neuritis’, a condition where the immune system, triggered by a previous infection, mistakenly attacks healthy tissue, in Rhys’ case the optic nerve. But hours away from complete visual loss, a series of tests need to done to rule out other causes, as the treatment for a misdiagnosis could mean Rhys not only losing his sight but also losing his life.

Test results showed massive leakage and swelling in both optic nerves but no definitive diagnosis. Brain and spinal fluid tests showed elevated white cells that could suggest lymphoma cancer cells, infectious meningitis, or simply spillover from the inflamed optic nerves, as generally with post-infectious immune optic neuritis the brain fluid is normal.

The treatment for post-infectious optic neuritis is intravenous infusion of immunosuppressive drugs to stop his immune system attacking himself. Dr Pane knew if he was right he could save Rhys’ vision, but if he was wrong and Rhys has meningitis, the immune system suppressant would be like throwing fuel on the fire.

With Rhys vision at stake, but without the time to wait for definitive test results, Dr Pane proceeds with the infusion.

He spends the entire night sleeplessly waiting from a call from nurses to say that Rhys has headaches or seizures but the phone stays silent. The following morning he made his way to the hospital, nervous to see Rhys’ state, as the drugs can sometimes take a while to kick in. Dr Pane turns the corner to enter Rhys’ room and finds him casually sitting up and reading a newspaper.

From here Rhys was fortunate to have a remarkably rapid recovery. Within a week he regained normal sight in his left eye and almost total vision in his right. Today he has completely normal vision in both eyes.

Rhys is one of the lucky ones. Instead of only having only old memories to cling to, he is able to create new ones. Rhys is sharing one of these memories when his world went dark. As a part of the Last Seen Exhibition, artist Vladislav Bodnaruk has partnered with Rhys to put on canvas a picture of one of the last things he saw before his vision faded.  

Read about Rhys’ Last Seen here.

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