Inserting contact lenses into the eyes of an infant sounds like a daunting task, but Susan Purcell, mother of 5-year-old Daniel and 1-year-old Joshua, didn’t have many options. When Daniel was 3 months old, David Hunter, MD, PhD, ophthalmologist-in-chief at Children’s Hospital Boston, told Susan that without contacts Daniel would be blind. A few years later, Joshua faced the same problem. From multiple eye surgeries to the struggle of wearing contact lenses, Daniel and Joshua have encountered daily challenges in order to see.
Both Purcell boys suffer from far- and near-sightedness in addition to having small, deep-set eyes. This not only makes vision a problem, it also makes correcting the issue extremely difficult, as Purcell quickly discovered. By age 5, Daniel has already been through 11 surgeries, including two lensectomies (removing his lenses) and two subsequent surgeries to implant new lenses, two surgeries to relieve pressure in the eye by cutting the front and back of the pupil and a couple of botox injections to stop Daniel’s eyes from shaking. Because his eyes are so small, Daniel even had to be anesthetized a few times just so doctors could properly examine him for conditions like glaucoma. Prior to the lens implant surgeries, Daniel also had to wear both bifocals and contact lenses.
The first time Purcell put in Daniel’s contact lenses was very traumatic for both of them. Only 3 months old, Daniel screamed and tried to wriggle away. “It took three hours to get them in,” Susan says. Overwhelmed and frustrated by the task, Susan almost gave up until she learned that her son would not be able to see without the eyewear. With that in mind, she kept at it. “Within a month, it started to get easier,” Susan says, “I could get his contacts in within a half an hour.”
A few years later, when Joshua was born, Susan hoped that he wouldn’t suffer from the same eye problems as his older brother. Unfortunately, that was not the case. At 14 and 21 days old, Joshua needed two lensectomies. Not long afterwards, one lens grew back cloudy and studded with particles. Joshua had to have another lensectomy to correct the problem. Like Daniel, Joshua also needed both glasses and contact lenses with the highest prescription available in order to see properly.
Friends and family would say that dealing with another child with vision problems would be easy, since Susan was already familiar with those daily challenges. For Susan, though it was overwhelming. Whereas Daniel started wearing contacts at 3 months, Joshua required them immediately. It was even more difficult to insert contacts into Joshua’s smaller eyes. “It isn’t helpful when people just tell you that you’ll manage,’” Susan says. “Unless you’re doing this on a daily basis, you don’t know how frustrating it is.” Even so, soon Susan began to find techniques that made the daily contact lens insertions easier. She emphasizes the importance of staying calm so that her sons are comfortable.
“If you’re nervous or anxious,” she says, “your child will resist. They sense what you’re feeling. On bad days, get them into a good mood—get a favorite toy and play until they’re ready. There’s no need to rush. Just take a few deep breaths and don’t give up.” Susan also found that it helpful to get Daniel involved in the process of putting in his contact lenses. She will ask him to get his lenses for her, or hold his top eyelid while Susan holds the bottom. Daniel also gets to play the experienced older brother role, telling Joshua, “It’s okay,” as Susan inserts Joshua’s contacts.
In terms of eye safety, consistency is important. Susan always uses the same hand and starts on the same side so that she doesn’t accidentally insert the wrong lens into the wrong eye or put a lens back into the wrong container. Getting the contacts mixed up can increase the chance of infection.
Having learned helpful tips for her son’s eye care, Susan developed a video for Children’s Contact Lens Service to help other parents dealing with similar issues. She also put the video on YouTube, where it’s been viewed over 5,000 times. Susan gets emails from parents all over the world, saying thank you and sharing their own experiences.
For parents like Susan, this sense of camaraderie and support is enormously helpful. “It’s so important to talk about what you’re feeling and experiencing,” she says. “The video is meant as a starting point. Other parents can share what’s worked for them and encourage each other to find new, creative solutions.” Even though there have been many struggles for the Purcell family, Susan considers the challenges worth it when she thinks of the ultimate goal. “It’s tough,” she says, “but you have to keep calm and keep going. The reward is that your children can see.”