They are boring aren’t they? Those leaflets slipping through the mailbox. The countless email reminders to “book your eye exam”.
But, as Kerry Wheeler (team therapist for the Ipswich Witches) knows very well, Ipswich-based sports massage therapist Kerry Wheeler, ignoring them could be at your peril.
If she hadn’t scheduled a second opinion appointment ten years ago, Kerry says she most likely would have lost her sight.
Then, in her early thirties, Kerry says she had no health issues she could think of, other than having had “headaches” since childhood, according to her mother.
Working for the police at Custom House in Felixstowe, she spent her time twirling between Ipswich and the coast, until one day she noticed something was wrong.
“I worked on the third floor of the building. One day I went upstairs, walked into the office, and noticed my eyes were kinda weird. Nothing that I can identify in particular. The only way I could describe the onset of the symptoms was that when I looked at a bright light and looked away, I still had that brightness and couldn’t see properly.
A person who “stays calm and carries on” by nature, Kerry carried on with her life as usual. A routine eye test showed her eyesight was fine.
But, underneath, she suspected something was wrong. She visited her GP. “It was difficult, I guess, from his perspective, because all I could say was ‘something is wrong with my eyes’. He asked me if I had been to an optician. J I had, so he suggested a second opinion.
No wiser, Kerry made an appointment with what was the old Ipswich Co-operative Opticians and was told there was a disease that affected women of childbearing age. She was 32 years old.
“She [the optician] took a picture of my eyes and didn’t really say more except that she was sending it to the eye clinic at the hospital.
Soon Ipswich Hospital was in touch, and before Kerry knew it, she was being scanned and tested left and right and center.
A lumbar puncture, testing his cerebrospinal fluid pressure, revealed that his ICP (intracranial pressure) was over 40. In a healthy adult, the range is usually between 6 and 25 cmH20. “The massive buildup of cerebrospinal fluid was pressing on my brain, causing my optic discs to swell!”
Kerry was diagnosed with idiopathic intracranial hypertension – something rarely diagnosed at the time.
The treatment involved multiple outpatient visits to drain the fluid via wooden punctures, which was like, she said, sticking a bandage over an open wound.
“The first time I did it, it was like someone had cleaned the windows. I didn’t realize that my vision, while it seemed clear, was actually like looking through glass frosted.
Time and time again, Kerry returned to the hospital. And the medication she hoped would help her manage, barely touched the sides.
Eventually, she couldn’t drive safely, which, Kerry admits, was one of the worst things that could have happened.
“It meant that I had lost my independence. To and from work. Shopping for groceries, because I live alone. I finally got a bike, which was great, but I really missed riding.
Kerry’s family, friends and colleagues gathered, driving her to the shops and from the train station to the office, where she continued to work, despite her steadily worsening symptoms.
“I came down quite quickly. Ipswich [Hospital] said they couldn’t go any further with me, so they referred me to Addenbrookes in November, to the wonderful Professor Pickard, who is now retired. He said “if we don’t operate, you will go blind”.
Kerry puts it lightly saying it was “a bit of a shock”.
She was referred to neuroradiologist Dr. Nick Higgins for further testing.
“He identified that there was a narrowing in the veins in my head. It’s like when you pinch a pipe and the water pressure builds up.
Rather than go the usual route with shunts, the decision was made to insert stents, similar to those used in heart operations, into Kerry’s brain – the first implanted on December 22, two days before Christmas.
“Now my brain looks like a worm farm if you cut it,” she laughs.
“When I say I’ve had three or four brain surgeries and other ‘branchings’ as we call them, it all sounds really dramatic, but they go through the jugular vein. When I was taking tests, they penetrated my groin and I was awake for those…it was, uh…fun! I became obsessed with not sneezing during the procedure. Can you imagine?”
Kerry had several stents fitted over the year, each improving her a little. A final stent for the center of his brain was discussed, but did not take place.
“We agreed that the benefits of doing it were not enough to outweigh the stress of surgery.
“I wasn’t off work very long,” Kerry says, “but every time I would come back at reduced hours and rack them up again. In addition to my eyesight, I also had enormous fatigue. At worst, I slept 14 to 15 hours a day. It got to the point where more surgery just wasn’t worth it.
Today, Kerry lives with IIH, but remained (knock on wood) asymptomatic, then started her own business.
“I’d rather try something and watch it fail than think ‘what if I did this or did that?’. After all that, I realized how precious my eyesight was, how much I wanted to see the world and all there was to do. It almost made me realize that I needed to live my life a bit. Like a kick in the butt. It definitely made me more likely to try things.
Including climbing Ben Nevis in the dark for the Alzheimer’s Society, cycling from London to Paris for the British Legion and taking part in triathlons.
Her estrangement from the police was, she says, organic. While she was out of action, she started selling cosmetics for Virgin V and found that customers regularly asked her for facials and massages.
“I got so sick of people asking me that I took a Swedish massage course – and I absolutely loved it. From there I decided to do a sports massage course and that snowballed from there.
“It’s not that I fell in love with the police, but I also had this other thing and found that I was turning down opportunities on both sides of my professional life.”
A conversation with her mother led her to realize that, yes, maybe she could branch out on her own. Kerry has applied for a five-year sabbatical from Suffolk Police. And he was rewarded.
She started working out of a spare room at home, building a clinic in her garden and running sessions through Hadleigh Physio. Today, Kerry has her own Keep Well studio in a gym in Needham Market where she offers Pilates, massage therapy and NLP – a talk therapy that helped her through her illness as she she was down.
“I have people lying on the couch for 30 or 45 minutes and my words can have a huge impact on my clients – they are a powerful way to help, which is why I took the practitioner course.
“Mind and body influence each other so much and that’s just another thing I can do to help clients feel better.”
Ten years after the operation, how is Kerry feeling? “Well, I have no problem with blind spots! I need glasses, but that’s because I’m getting old,” she laughs. “And yes, I have headaches… but everyone has headaches.
“I highly recommend everyone get regular eye checks. I know the NHS is under so much pressure, but if you think something is wrong, push a little harder and get a second opinion.
“I often tell my clients ‘listen to your body, pay attention to it’. It’s so important.
What is IIH?
According to the NHS, idiopathic intercranial hypertension is: “A rare condition which affects around one or two people in 100,000, most women, but men and children can also be affected. The space around the brain is filled with water like fluid known as cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). IIH is a neurological condition in which there is too much CSF present, causing pressure around the brain. This causes headaches, swelling of the optic nerves (papillodema) and can lead to loss of vision or blindness.
Symptoms include: severe headache, loss of field of vision, transient blurred vision, double vision, sensitivity to light, and pulsatile tinnitus (ringing in the ears in rhythm with the pulse).
If you are concerned about the symptoms speak to your GP.
Former police officer – “Without an eye exam, 10 years ago I would have gone blind”