Surviving the sledgehammer

March 11, 2009 in General, News, Spirituality

dscn0187.jpgThe Irish Times, in a feature article to mark World Glaucoma Day, told the story of Martin Murphy, SJ, who lives such an active life in Gardiner Street that few people would realise what he has coped with. It is a dramatic story.  He spoke of how he first became aware of a problem in his eye when he was working in Tanzania. He was diagnosed with open-angle glaucoma, and surgery was required immediately. Years later, back in Ireland, his eyesight had disimproved enough for him to be placed on the blind register. The psychological blow was tremendous. “It was like a sledgehammer,” he says. And yet, as his account below shows, he has not been beaten by his affliction.


I was working in a place called Babati in Tanzania, helping build a new school and water system. It was in a rural area and there was no power where we lived. Reading at night had to be done by candlelight. One evening I left there was a piece of dirt in the corner of my eye. I didn’t think much of it. In the morning it was still there, causing a shadow. I went to a nurse in the local clinic. she couldn’t see anything lodged in my eye and told me to get it seen to at a hospital. The nearest hospital, Kilmanjaro Christian Medical Clinic, wa 300 miles away. It was run by a group of international doctors, and luckily had an eye department with a specialist in glaucoma. She told me I had open-angle glaucoma. I was 47 at the time (I’m 75 now). She gave me eye drops. My sight was not too bad and I was still able to drive. Two years later, however, she told me that the pressure controls in my eyes were gone and that surgery was needed to relieve the pressure and to prevent blindness. That was dramaatic news to hear. I went ahead with the surgery in Tanzania.

After 20 years living and working in East Africa (Tanzania, Zambia, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Malawi) I returned to Ireland. I really enjoyed my work there on building projects and irrigation schemes. Over the years my eyesight deteriorated. I was no longer able to drive and was put on the blind register.  This had a big psychological effect on me. There are no words to describe it. It was like a sledgehammer. Despair and despondency can set in very easily. I had to give up lots of things I loved, like playing soccer and table tennis.  Of course at first I denied it. I thought that the doctors were making a mistake, but the doctors were proved right. Three years ago my consultant, Professor Colm O’Brien, told me that my eyes had stabilised to such an extent that I didn’t need to take eye drops any more – I’d been taking them for 20 years at that stage. I became involved with the Glaucoma Council and travelled round Ireland giving talks about the condition: glaucoma is the world’s leading cause of preventable blindness.

Being partially sighted does affect my mobility – so do my two hip replacments. For example I find it hard to see the number on a bus. I only realise that I should have been on a bus when it passes me by. Walking down the street can be tricky too. Having sight difficulties can also be isolating. If you are going around with a badge saying you are partially sighted, people with vision don’t understand. I try not to let it stop me doing things I want to do, and I am hoping to travel to Rome during Holy Week with a Jesuit priest in my community who turned 100 last month.