“In the Blink of an Eye”

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The Story

“In the Blink of an Eye”
by Bryn Nelson
Mosaic, September 8, 2015

The Pitch

[Nelson notes: I already had a relationship with Mosaic at this point so I didn’t really include the grafs on why I should be the one to write it, etc.]

Severe Eye Pain

Screaming, howling, raging, red-hot-poker-in-the-eye pain.

Rebecca Petris gets the calls a few times every week. People from around the country, desperate for something – anything – to make the pain go away. Sometimes she sells them one of the remedies she’s curated over the years as part of her online store. Sometimes she becomes an impromptu therapist instead, urging them to hang on and seek help before they take their own lives.

She cannot save them all.

Nearly everyone in the loose collection of patients who sound more like doctors when they talk about the scourge of severe eye pain knows of someone who followed through on the threat to end it all; few have known more than Petris. “People find me on the Internet because no one’s listening to them,” she says. “They’re at the end of their rope.”

Pain that originates on the surface of the eye can be caused by a stray eyelash or other foreign object, a dirty contact lens, a sty, pinkeye, a corneal abrasion, a chemical burn or an eyelid infection known as blepharitis. These are all transient causes, though. What happens if the pain never goes away, and an ophthalmologist sees nothing wrong?

This is a story about Petris, a former high-powered financier who once leased planes to the airlines and now oversees an Internet lifeline for patients whose excruciating pain is often dismissed as a psychosomatic condition (she is building an off-the-grid house in a small community a few hours from Seattle). After a LASIK surgery gone awry, she has faced more than a decade of experimental therapies and corrective surgeries. When she moved to London for work, she was invited to give talks about her experience as a patient at ophthalmology meetings in Europe, but has been shunned by the field since moving back to the U.S.

It’s about a brilliant Boston researcher named Perry Rosenthal, whose popularization of a peculiar contact lens made him a hero among patients who finally found relief, and about the Quixotic quest to link the condition to barely discernable nerve damage that tore apart the eye foundation that he began.

And it’s about the astonishing range of diseases and conditions that can impact a small disc-shaped window that holds more nerve endings that anywhere else in the body. Even more remarkably, ophthalmologists have made frustratingly little progress in understanding, much less treating, the origins of chronic corneal pain.

One patient, for example, has compared the surprisingly crude and disgusting method of evacuating a painfully clogged gland in the eyelid – by slipping a small spatula between the eye and eyelid and squeezing out the toothpaste-like secretions – to expressing a dog’s anus. Other patients have had small plugs inserted into their tear ducts, only to have the plugs migrate to their sinus cavities.

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