Her world's brighter and clearer after cornea transplant

When her doctor advised her to undergo a cornea transplant using a relatively new procedure at the age of 26, Arica Chua hesitated.

It was 2003 and, back then, cornea transplants were not as well- known among the public, she said. What her doctor at Singapore National Eye Centre (SNEC) had in mind was the deep anterior lamellar keratoplasty (Dalk), done using the "big bubble" technique.

This involved replacing the outer layers of her cornea with donor tissue. There are several ways of doing this procedure, one of which is the injection of air - "big bubble" - to help separate the corneal layers during the operation.


This was not the standard operation done at SNEC then, which involved replacing the entire cornea.

"Information was limited. I did not know anyone who had had a cornea transplant," recalled Ms Chua, now 39. "I felt very uncertain."

Her eye problems can be traced back to her teens, when she was unable to see the blackboard clearly during lessons. Spectacles did not help. An eye specialist later diagnosed her with a lazy right eye.

Meanwhile, her vision problems continued. "At night, I could not see faces when people approached me from the front," said Ms Chua.

She had to stop playing sports like tennis because it was hard to follow the ball's movements.

She was finally diagnosed with keratoconus, a disease in which the corneas bulge into a cone-like shape, distorting vision.

To address it, she wore hard contact lenses for a year, but it was "very uncomfortable, like having sand in the eye", recalled Ms Chua, who does administrative work and IT support.

"Due to dry eyes, the lenses kept popping out. Once, they fell onto the floor when I was in a public toilet," she said, adding that she had to use eyedrops frequently.

Her doctor, senior consultant cornea surgeon Donald Tan at SNEC, advised her to have a cornea transplant, as there was a risk her cornea would split internally, causing severe vision loss and pain.

In 2004, Ms Chua finally agreed to go under the knife for her right eye. She was one of the few patients who underwent the Dalk procedure at that time. The change was significant, she recalled. "Before the operation, my vision was dim; after the operation, whatever I saw was brighter and clearer."

Now, more than a decade later, her eye remains healthy, though she recently started using steroid eyedrops as a precaution against infection.

But Ms Chua, who wears spectacles for astigmatism and slight myopia, is not taking anything for granted. She takes care of her eyes by not overstraining them, for example.

"I don't watch much television, avoid swimming and control my smartphone use," she said.

Poon Chian Hui

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2016, with the headline 'Her world's brighter and clearer after cornea transplant'. Print Edition | Subscribe