After thirty years, life changed in three minutes – advances in technology offer sight to woman born prematurely

Half of premature children are at risk of poor vision or unhealthy eyes as their eyes have not fully developed.  These complex organs continue to grow not just until birth, but also for years after that, but latest technology offers hope that vision can be corrected.

This was indeed the case for Romford lady, Ieva Bikulica, who was born six weeks premature.  Now 30 years old, her vision has always been a challenge, as her eyes grew to an abnormal shape and so she was heavily short-sighted. In addition, an abnormal blood vessel formation in her eye – again very common for premature babies – caused damage to her retina.

Consultant eye surgeon at Optegra Eye Hospital London, Mr Alex Shortt, explains: “In general, children – whether premature or not – who are short sighted at a young age, or from birth, end up with severe short sight as they progress to adults. On top of this if a child is born prematurely, eye growth is affected and the eye can end up longer than normal eyes, which also means the child is short sighted.

“Premature babies also often have bleeding in the eye, as Ieva did, as the blood vessels within the eyes have not properly formed.  These can often be accompanied by haemorrhages in the brain which can cause great disability, but in Ieva’s case, she thankfully escaped without that but the bleeding in her eye led to scar tissue in the eyes at the time of birth.

“All these factors mean that the advice her mother was given at the time, that Ieva would always need glasses or contacts to help her see clearly was correct.  However, thanks to advances in technology, once the eyes are fully formed – around the age of 20/21 years, we can now take steps to help with more complex cases and higher prescriptions.”

Ieva had also suffered from a lazy eye which was corrected with surgery when she was a child – prevalence ranges from 16% to 22% in ex pre-term children, which is substantially higher than among children born at term (1–3%).

For Ieva, after three decades in glasses, she says a three-minute operation “literally changed my life!”

Having always worn glasses for a strong prescription of -6 and -6.5, she says: “I did not expect there would ever be a day that I could open my eyes and see without glasses on – and now that day has come!”

She was delighted, on meeting surgeon Mr. Alex Shortt at Optegra, that there was an opportunity to improve her vision, which she had feared could not be changed.  She says: “I felt almost blind really, I just could not do anything without glasses, and I did try contact lenses three years ago, but because of my strong prescription I needed monthly ones which needed to be washed out every day.  It was so much hassle and my eyes were getting very tired, red and dry.

“I am due to get married this year and we hope to start a family soon after, so my fiancé pointed out how much easier all that would be without glasses or contacts. Getting up in the middle of the night with a baby and having to find contact lenses does not sound good!  So I started researching online and found Optegra.  I went for a free consultation just to find out if there was anything that could be done, and was delighted to hear about SMILE, the latest technology for laser eye surgery.”

Mr Shortt, consultant ophthalmic surgeon for Optegra, says: “Ieva had various health issues due to being born prematurely, one eye was weaker than the other as she previously had a squint and corrective surgery on that.  The good thing about SMILE is that the recovery is so quick because it is providing laser surgery through keyhole, there is no period of blurry vision, where a squint or lazy eye could worsen.

“Ieva’s case shows there is hope for children who were born prematurely and their eyes affected.  While it is important to wait until the prescription has stabilized and the eye has stopped growing – when they are around 20 years old – there is hope that in the long-term, those children can be free of glasses and have excellent vision.”

Ieva, who is a sales assistant, enjoys travel and particularly loves Rome.  She is getting married in May. She says: “I feel so lucky to have had Mr Shortt as my surgeon – I was really nervous at first, but he has a way of calming you, I did not feel stressed at all when I spoke to him. He gave me diazepam to calm me as I was worried I would shake during the procedure, but within minutes it was done, I could not feel a thing, and opened my eyes to be able to see the numbers on the wall clock – for the first time in my whole life!

“What Optegra have done is amazing – they are changing people’s lives, and not just for patients; it is a huge thing for my mum as well, who has spent the last 30 years thinking I would always suffer with my vision.  Now, thanks to technology moving on, I can see!”

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