Nick Humphreys started wearing contact lenses to improve his sight while playing football – but they ended up leaving him blind in one eye.
He wore them in the shower, causing Acanthamoeba keratitis (AK) – a rare parasitical infection in his right cornea.
Nick, 29, of Shrewsbury, Shropshire, has had two operations on his eye and is now waiting for a corneal transplant.
The local newspaper journalist, said: ‘If I’d have known how dangerous it was to wear contacts in the shower, I would never have got them in the first place.
‘After getting the infection, I went from hitting the gym every other day and playing football three times a week, to being housebound for six months and losing the will to live.
‘I got contacts as I didn’t like how I looked in glasses and it nearly cost me my right eye.’
Short sighted Nick started wearing glasses aged four and by 2013, he wanted to improve his sight doing sport, so he opted for monthly lenses, costing roughly £25 a time.
Alternating his eye wear to give himself a break from lenses, he would use his contacts up to five days a week, wearing glasses on the other days.
‘On a standard morning I’d wake up, pop my lenses in and head to the gym before work, then I’d jump in the shower before heading to the office,’ he said.
‘I thought nothing of it at the time. I was never told not to wear contact lenses in the shower, there’s no warning on the packaging and my opticians never mentioned a risk.’
Nick only realised something was wrong in January 2018, when he noticed a scratch on his right eye.
Waking up one morning unable to see through it properly, he assumed he had scratched his eye putting his lenses in, but as the week progressed it became clear something much more serious had happened.
When it didn’t improve, he went to see the optician, who said he had an ulcer on his eye and advised to go to the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital immediately.
Nick was tested for Acanthamoeba keratitis (AK) – an infection of the cornea – the clear window at the front of the eye – caused by a microscopic organism called Acanthamoeba, which is found in water.
A week later, doctors told Nick he had tested positive for AK, leaving him fearing his footballing days were over.
‘I told the doctor that I’d read a few horror stories about it and asked if I would need to have my eye removed,’ he continued.
‘He just looked at me and said, “That could well be a possibility.”
‘That’s when I realised it was serious.’
He was given disinfectant eye drops for three weeks, which initially improved his eyesight, but by March 2018 he suddenly found himself completely blind in his right eye.
‘I was driving to work and my vision completely went in my right eye,’ he recalled. ‘I don’t know how I managed not to crash, but it didn’t take me long to realise I needed to get back to the hospital.’
Referred to the Birmingham and Midland Eye Centre, doctors prescribed higher strength eye drops that needed to be applied hourly – even at night.
After weeks of sleepless nights and unable to work, Nick was left housebound and depressed, while doctors tried to decide the best course of action.
‘I love my job but I physically couldn’t be outside the house,’ he said.
‘The pain in my eye was too much and the only time I would leave was to visit the hospital.
‘I felt at my absolute lowest and the one thing that would cheer me up – playing football – was no longer an option.’
Six months after his initial diagnosis, doctors decided the only option left was to perform a corneal cross linking.
Usually used to treat keratoconus – an eye disorder causing thinning of the cornea – it involves using ultraviolet light and vitamin B2 drops to stiffen the cornea. Employed together, the treatments bond fibres in the cornea more tightly.
While the procedure – performed in July last year – cleared the infection, Nick remained blind in his right eye.
He said: ‘Obviously, I didn’t want to be blind in my right eye, but at least, knowing the infection had gone, I could start to get my life back on track. I could finally return to work and start to hit the gym.’
Nick still needed further treatment and in September 2018, he had an amniotic membrane transplant to his right cornea at the Birmingham and West Midland Eye Centre.
The procedure involves grafting tissue from the amniotic membrane – the innermost layer of the placenta – on to the eye to protect the cornea. It has anti-inflammatory and anti-scarring effects, as well as containing growth factors that promote wound healing on the surface of the eye.
While the treatment was a success, by Christmas 2018, following the second operation, Nick’s mood plummeted.
After being referred to a counsellor by the GP, Nick has slowly come to terms with his condition.
Working with the charity Fight for Sight to raise awareness about the danger of using contact lenses while showering or swimming has also helped.
A YouGov poll for Fight for Sight revealed that a large proportion of UK contact lens wearers are putting their eyesight at risk through unsafe habits, unaware that they could develop infections like Acanthamoeba keratitis (AK).
What is Acanthamoeba keratitis?
Acanthamoeba is the name of a tiny form of life with only one cell.
Keratitis is the name for inflammation in the cornea.
Acanthamoeba are usually found in soil and in water, for example in hot and cold tap water, swimming pools, hot tubs and sea water.
In the UK, most people who get Acanthamoeba keratitis wear contact lenses. About 1 in 30,000 contact lens wearers become infected. It’s also possible to become infected after an injury to the cornea.
Using tap water to clean or store contact lenses or having poor contact lens hygiene increases the risk of infection.
Examples of poor lens hygiene are not using disinfection solutions properly, reusing the solution in the contact lens case, failing to empty and dry the contact lens case after use and storing lenses in water overnight.
Wearing contact lenses when swimming or taking a shower also increases risk. So does putting lenses in with wet hands from tap water.
Fight For Sight
A worrying 56 per cent of people polled said they wore them for longer than the recommended 12 hours a day, 54 per cent said they had swum or showered in them and 47 per cent had slept in them. Meanwhile, 15 per cent of respondents had put them in their mouth to clean or lubricate them and two per cent had even shared used lenses with other wearers.
He said: ‘I can honestly say if I’d had the slightest idea that this was even a remote possibility I would never have worn contacts in the first place.
‘It’s crucial that people out there know this is a reality and it can happen because of something as simple as getting in the shower.’
Now just six weeks away from a corneal transplant – an operation that replaces a damaged cornea with healthy donor tissue from someone who has died – Nick is counting down the days until the procedure, booked for August 15 at Birmingham and Midland Eye Centre.
He said: ‘I’ve lost 18 months of my life because of something as simple as showering with contacts in.
‘If I get my sight back I’ll never wear contacts again. Instead, like Edgar Davids – the former Dutch professional footballer – I’ll wear some prescription goggles to do sport instead.’
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