It is unusual to see a wave the size of a mountain on the horizon, but that’s exactly what 66-year-old north coast fisherman Dennis Sutton saw as he was preparing for another day of mullet fishing. Even more unusual was that the wave shifted on the horizon every time Dennis moved.
In fact what Dennis was seeing were changes taking place at the back of his right eye, which were threatening his sight. He has wet macular degeneration, which causes loss of central vision that is vital to your ability to read, drive and see colours clearly. The symptoms had been with him for a few days. The problem was, Dennis didn’t take those symptoms seriously.
“A couple of nights before, when I was logging into my computer, I’d noticed the lines on the screen curved up at one end. I thought maybe it was a blood vessel that had burst or something and it would go away… it came on so quickly, to be honest I was a bit frightened.
“The next day my wife Joy was at me to see someone about it, but me being me, I thought it would right itself.
Fortunately, Dennis saw an advertisement in the Coffs Harbour Advocate, a picture of an eye with the line ‘how’s your macula?’ and a Freecall number. “I decided to call it, thinking I was ringing an eye surgery but instead I got put through to Julie.”
Julie Heraghty is the Chief Executive Officer of Macular Disease Foundation Australia. “The symptoms Dennis described were those of wet macular degeneration and with this disease the earlier you start treatment, the greater your chances are of saving sight. The first thing I said to him was ‘you’re not getting on a boat to go fishing today’.
Dennis wasn’t keen to follow her instruction. “I was out on the beach with a mullet crew of six and I didn’t want to let them down by taking off to get my eyes checked. When you’re mullet fishing you’re there from dawn ‘til dusk seven days a week and its competitive, there are other crews on the beach.”
But Julie insisted. “Julie was shocking. She said, ‘you’ve got to see an optometrist immediately’ and she made the appointment for me. Once I’d been seen by my optometrist in Macksville, the same thing happened. I was told, 'you’ve got to get to Coffs Harbour for treatment today' I wasn’t given a choice.”
These days Dennis admits it was just as well that he followed orders. “I had my first treatment in Coffs Harbour that afternoon. A few months later, and once I’d had a couple of treatments, (ophthalmologist) Dr Lim told me I was very lucky. I’d have been blind in that eye if I hadn’t seen him when I did.”
Instead, with regular treatment, Dennis currently has perfect vision in his right eye, although he’s been warned to watch for sudden changes in his left eye, again due to wet macular degeneration.
Having seen his mother go blind in both eyes, Dennis is well aware of just how precious his sight is.
“Mum is 88 and she has been legally blind for 15 years or more. When she got macular degeneration there was nothing they could do. Watching her now, makes me stop and think about what life would have been like had I not made that call to Macular Disease Foundation Australia.”
Since being diagnosed with wet macular degeneration, Dennis has reassessed his life and decided to sell his fishing business in favour of quieter times and some travel with his wife Joy. “I’ve fished all my life, since I was 22. I used to love it but I don’t love it now. My body is telling me it’s time to stop. It’s a tough job, out on the ocean, pulling traps over the side of the boat, throwing tubs of fish around.
“I’d like to do a bit of traveling; go over to Western Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand. I’d jump on a plane, stay in a hotel, hire a car. I’d go for a week or a fortnight then come back and go again somewhere else.” All the time, of course, keeping an eye on his vision, using his Amsler grid.
When Dennis was asked whether he had a message he’d like to pass on to other people at risk of macular degeneration, he had no hesitation. “Go and get your eyes checked. It’s easy.”