Chloe Pertzel takes us on her journey from darkness to light.
At 20 years of age, you were diagnosed with Keratoconus. Can you explain what this condition is?
Keratoconus is an eye disease that affects the cornea; it curves the cornea, which distorts vision. The curve is called an astigmatism. In extreme cases a cornea transplant is required; this is always a last resort.
When did you first notice your sight failing?
During my first year of university I did an industry placement at Sofitel Brisbane; I worked in banquets and struggled to see across the room. I could still drive; however, it was during this six months I decided I needed to see a specialist.
Being so young, it must of been terrifying. What were your thoughts and feelings at that time? How did it affect you and your family?
It’s been a struggle; I’ve been diagnosed with anxiety and depression. I see a therapist and have recently come off antidepressants. Due to this experience,however, I now feel grounded and much happier with the basic things in life. At 25 I wanted to be a manager and on a good salary, but my priorities changed when I couldn’t cross the road by myself. This caused me to rely on my parents; I moved home to live with them for over three years, so I didn’t have to worry about bills or being alone. This also has its pros and cons; while I got great support from my family, I did lose some of my independence.
You were officially legally blind and your only option, in order to regain some vision, was to have a double cornea transplant. Can you explain the operation and its process?
I was losing my eyesight so rapidly, I had to stop driving at night, and within six months I was about to stop driving altogether. I was scheduled to have minor preventative surgery, but my specialist took one look at my eyes and decided that I needed transplants. A cornea transplant can be a very hard process; the eye is one of the most sensitive tissues in the body. Its healing time can be unpredictable. I was told 18 months to two years on the first eye, then we move on to the second.
It has taken over three years for my left eye to heal and regain vision. During this time, I lost my vision and was legally blind (we had to prioritise cornea health, not vision, during the first year of recovery). After more surgeries, including relaxing incisions – which isn’t relaxing at all – and cataract surgery, I was able to regain some vision with prescription glasses in my left eye.
You’ve had a cornea transplant preformed on your left eye; how has this improved your sight and your life in general?
I would be legally blind without a transplant. My quality of life and learning to cope with vision loss took a massive toll on my mental health. It definitely wasn’t in my life plan.
Now, I feel like it was the best thing for me. For the last few years my goal has been to cross the road by myself. I have a newfound appreciation for the little things in life. I’ve got a dog and a boyfriend whom I adore; that’s two amazing things to come out of this journey, and that makes it all worthwhile.
You’re still waiting on a second transplant for your right eye. After this operation, will your vision return to normal?
I will never have 20/20 vision unassisted, my eyes will never fully recover – but we can try. Having an underlying eye disease causes more issues in cornea transplant recipients. There can still be issues post op; my biggest hope and dream is to have a healthy eye with enough vision to drive again. My goal is to drive; that’s the dream, and that’s enough.
I can only imagine that your usual approach to life has totally changed. What have been some of the challenges?
Irrevocably changed. I have developed a low frustration tolerance, which is common in people who go through uncontrollable medical issues. For example, if a friend complains about someone driving under the speed limit, I find it hard to care – I haven’t been able to drive in three years. On the up side, I’ve become a good listener and also a fixer. I believe if you can change the problem, then do it – or don’t complain.
You have a dog you describe as a therapist and have learnt to walk with a cane. Has this improved your overall independence?
My parents thought that my puppy, Shadow, could be a good therapy dog. She has no official training, but my boyfriend works for Guide Dogs, and with his guidance I was able to stay on top of her training. She is my world. Shadow was named due to my severe light sensitivity. Because of her, I go outside every day. She has brought me out of the shadows.
I’m also a client of Guide Dogs’ low vision services. They taught me how to use a cane and also helped me source different types of sunglasses to suit my needs. Their help during this time has been amazing; it’s given me confidence to go back out into the world.
Amongst all this, you have managed to find love and understanding in your boyfriend, John. How has he helped you overcome this adversity?
When we first met, John was just incredible; he listened with open ears and heart. We both discuss our mental health and work on it together. The support I’ve got from him during this time is just insane. He continues to surprise me with patience, compassion and understanding, and I truly couldn’t do it without him. He makes me want to do better, be a better me.
You have a degree in Bachelor of Business International Hotel and Resort Management; what’s your hope for the future?
I honestly don’t know what’s next for me. Hospitality comes so naturally, but I don’t know if my eyes can handle working in that environment. At 21 years old, I had a degree under my belt, I’d lived in two different cities, I was working for luxury hotels, and going out with friends regularly.
In the last three years I’ve lost my vision, until everything was so fuzzy I couldn’t tell what it was, and I’ve also regained it up to driving range. This process hasn’t been a fun one, but it has been a grounding one.
My hope for the future isn’t about the material things; I care about being able to see someone’s face. My dream is to finish my right eye and get back out into the world. I’m so ready for the next chapter, but until I recover from my next surgery, I’m just living life one day at a time.
Interview: Bronwyn Davis.