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  • Heather Topf

The life-changing injury edit

Updated: Jun 14

I wrote this post on a now redundant blog a little while after I injured myself in 2017. It's interesting for me to read back four years, three surgeries, 31 stitches and a new cornea later. I actually still can't see out of that eye, but we're hopeful in time that will change.


It's also incredible to think this blog post in essence launched my new career in copywriting and Digital Marketing. My writing style has changed a lot - hopefully improved - but definitely changed. I'm fascinated to see what I think in another four years time.


Corneal transplant stitches

A little over seven weeks ago my life changed altogether. You know when they talk about life-changing injuries? Or waking up to a totally different world? Well, that’s what happened to me.

I was at Glastonbury, with my sister and a whole load of friends. Sunday night had rolled around and we were making the most of the official closing of the festival. Most of the people I knew who were working were done for the weekend, everyone's kids had headed home to the grandies and night soon became morning, without any thought of anyone going to bed.


After one too many ciders and watching the sunrise — and then some, I headed for my tent. Now, anyone who’s spent any time camping knows all too well the story of tent death — the sweating, hard to breathe claustrophobia of waking up in a ‘nylon nightmare’ as my sister calls them. Polyester prison’s another term we coined, but let's just call it a tent for today. So, I pulled my sleeping mat and duvet out of the sweltering tent and fell asleep on the grass outside.

I’m not known for my warmth. I’m one of those people who forever has feet like icebergs and is cold the second the sun goes down. So, I guess it was maybe 9 pm when I woke up cold and bitten by some bastard bug and dragged my sorry ass back into the tent.


I’ve worn contact lenses forever, like at least a decade. And after much discussion with my optician, we’d settled on a pair of monthlies which you could sleep in. I used to literally wax lyrical about them — waking up being able to see each morning, bloody great! And for anyone like me who tends to like sports that involve wearing goggles, even better. Now, like anything they come with risks.


You know that leaflet in the back of medication, the one that tells you all the things that could potentially go wrong that we all ignore? Yeah, contact lenses have one of those. Contact lenses you sleep in have a big fat one of those. And I’m not going to plead ignorance, I was warned of the teeny risks, but like everyone, I thought it’ll never happen to me! In hindsight (whoever said it was a wonderful thing — they sure got that right, huh), my first warning should have been the changing guidelines on the contacts. To give them their dues, they insisted I had an eye check-up every 6 months. No check-up, no more contacts. But when I first started wearing them, it was whack 'em in, one month no drama! And a little while later… perhaps you should take them out overnight once a month… And by the time this happened I’d been advised to take them out once a week… I’m pretty sure it’ll end up at every night, but in hindsight (there it is again!), now I can only see out of one eye that wouldn’t have been such a bad thing.


So snug in my tent, but awake after my mega nap, I dug out my Kindle. Great for camping. I’ve got one of the back-lit ones, so you don’t need any light to read by and incidentally, now I can only see out of one eye, they’re great for accessibility as you can make the font huge! Anyway, my eye was all itchy and watery. I didn’t think much of it, late nights, dusty fields and general contact lens wear, it’s a recipe for scritchy eyes. After a while, it was really irritating me off though, so I took out the contact and settled back down to sleep.


But I couldn’t sleep, my eye was literally streaming — not watering, proper pouring down my face and really quite sore. You know when you think you’re not sleeping? I think I probably was on and off, because next thing I know, tent deaths set upon us again and there are lots of people making a move to leave site. By now I know my eye’s not right… I look like I’ve been punched in the face, my eye is literally swollen shut. The guys I’m with get me some ice and persuade me to wake up my sister. Who’s wonderful right, but if you don’t have to wake her up it’s best not to, if you know what I mean. Especially after a fortnight of hard work and late nights. But I was in a bit of a state so I did while they radioed through for someone to take me to the onsite festival hospital. Luckily, I’ve a few friends in high places… or in production at least and the lovely lot sorted a runner in a vehicle to take me to medical.


Now, Medical’s not really set up for eyes, they’re more used to dealing with heat stroke, drug spin-outs and the odd broken leg (and a fine job of it they do too), so they send me off to the nearest A&E. Luckily, good old production friend was able to take me — and had an easy pass out vehicle, so could get in and out of the festival site no dramas. This is about the last thing you want to do as 160,000+ people are all trying to leave, but there we are. He seemed quite excited about the prospect of some fast food and charging his phone, so all good, off to A&E we go.


The nice guy at A&E put some drops in my eyes and had a look. Dyed my eye and had another look. Got me to look left, to look right, to check out his ear, his chin, the lot and even showed me and my sister the teeny tiny cut on my cornea. No idea how I got it, it was right in the centre of my pupil, right under where the contact lens sits, so who knows. But something got in there. No worries, he explained, the body’s very clever and has produced a swelling up response to protect the eye. Nothing to worry about, but here’s some antibiotic ointment just in case, apply it every few hours, keep your lenses out for a week and no harm done. This isn’t the first time this has happened, it’s a pain but you forget about it after it’s all gone away. An ointment. For your eye. Who’s idea was that?! It’s all gunky and grim, but it’d always done the job before. I put little slithers of plastic in my eyeballs all the time, I can handle a little ointment.


So back to site we go, ointment in hand (and eye) and head back to pack up. A few hours later, on the way back home with my (very new) housemates, my eye’s still giving me grief. But you know, it’s got a cut on it, why wouldn’t it be? Festival weary, we get home and disperse, off to our own rooms, to shower and appreciate a real bed. I ordered a pizza — didn’t even get as far as showering, set up Friends on autoplay, I’m sorted for the next few hours.


But, my eye. My bloody eye, it’s really not feeling happy. I stuck some more ointment in, gave up on my pizza and tried to go to sleep.


I was an idiot. I think if I hadn’t been to the hospital that day I would have worried more. But, a medical professional had given me medicine and shown me this cut, of course, it was going to hurt, right? I spent the whole night rolling around, taking painkillers and sticking the ointment in my eye, trying new positions in which to sleep and stupidly not thinking this was weird.


Morning rolls around and I think bugger it, no more sleep for me. I might as well get up. Now, this is the first time I’ve looked in a mirror for maybe 10 hours. I never even turned the light on overnight. I peer at myself and realise some things really really wrong. The whole of my right eye is white. I can’t see anything through it and it hurts. It really hurts. I screamed for K, the housemate I know best, but she’s not in, just her boyfriend J. And as I mentioned, I’ve not lived here long, less than a month… And I’m a never-nude, I hate being undressed around others. But I really don’t give a shit right now, I run into K & J’s room in my knickers and a tank top like ‘J, I’m right in saying this isn’t right, right?!’.


Poor lad takes one look at me, stumbles out of bed and says ‘hospital, now'.


Let hindsight have another little minute here, I’m not sure why neither of us rang an ambulance… Instead, J went and knocked on our neighbour's door and persuaded a very sweet, but very stoned neighbour he wanted to drive us to A&E. This neighbour has one of the sexiest van’s I’ve ever seen. I’m downright gutted that I got to go in it, but I don’t really remember. It’s an old snub nose Mercedes, with a visor. A visor for God’s sake! And it’s camo, it’s like all my favourite things at once. I’ve been perving on this van since I first saw it. I remember talking to a friend once about wanting to go in a helicopter and how annoying it would be if you got airlifted somewhere and finally got to go in one of them but didn’t remember it. Less annoying than needing to be airlifted somewhere I guess, but still. This was a bit like that, remembering what it was like on the inside is pretty high on my wish list- after getting my eyesight back that is.


By now I’m in real pain. Clinging onto my eyeball, sobbing, no idea what’s going on pain. J straps me in the back, gets in the front with neighbour matey and off we go. Now, this van is mega sexy, as I’ve said…. But it’s also mega old and definitely doesn’t have power steering. Bristol’s not known for its wide roads, least of all where we live. Like I say, it’s all a bit hazy for me, but I remember being vaguely amused we were having such drama doing three-point turns and getting out of our street. Lovely neighbour man drops us at Bristol hospital and J literally steers me to the desk to check-in. That makes it sound like a hotel, but you know what I mean — the hospital version of check-in anyway.


‘You’re at the wrong hospital’, the lady on the desk says. What do you mean we’re at the wrong hospital?! ‘Need to go to eye A&E at the eye hospital, you do’, she says. So, sobbing, clutching my head and totally useless, J takes directions to the eye hospital and steers me on my way. We get lost, of course, we do. I literally can’t see shit, I’m panicking and it really bloody hurts. I’m wearing a pair of my ex’s joggers, which is silly enough before you imagine I’m 4ft11 and he’s 6ft2 and it’s been raining… And fashionista that I am, I’ve paired them with my trusty Birkenstocks, so the waters climbed up the sagging fabric and reached the back of my knees. We had to ask someone for directions, I really wonder what they thought of me, giant, wet clothes, crying, clutching my face. Although to be fair we were asking for help getting to the eye hospital, I’m sure they worked it out.


It really wasn’t far away, and I’m not sure if it actually took us very long to get there or it just felt like it, but we finally made it to eye A&E and man did they act fast. I don’t think they even took my name, the lady on the desk took one look at me and all of a sudden I was being given cocaine in the eyeball (who’d a thought that’s how they numb an eye?!), having a scraping of my cornea taken and sent back to a waiting room with the knowledge I was staying definitely staying the night. I told J he might as well go home, if I was staying the night, no point in him waiting around for me… And reluctantly off he went.


It’s all a bit of a blur. No pun intended. I remember moving waiting rooms a few times and asking for painkillers, which they wouldn’t give me until I was admitted. I remember a lovely nurse from another ward bringing me a pair of sunglasses because I was so light-sensitive I didn’t know what to do with myself. I remember a kind family who was also in the waiting area asking for painkillers on my behalf, I imagine because I was making such a racket crying. I remember being put in a bed and literally chewing the edge of my duvet because I was in so much pain. I remember all of a sudden having three nurses efficiently tending to me, an IV in my arm plus oral painkillers and more drops in my eye than I care to think about. I remember realising the NHS is bloody marvellous.


Optimistically, I really didn’t think it was that bad, I really never once thought I was going to end up blind in that eye. I called my parents and messaged my friends, told them I was in hospital overnight, I’d see them tomorrow. Mum and Dad wanted to come up, but I thought, no point, I’ll be better tomorrow! It’s a long drive so I told them to wait.


The nurses explained I had a very serious infection in my eyeball and that the scraping they’d taken was to identify which one. Until then, the best thing to do was to treat it for all of them. And so begun the hourly drops. I can’t be quite sure, but I think it was 5 antibiotics, one steroid and this stuff called Atropine (which dilates the pupil and paralyses it) on the hour, every hour, 24/7. Now, I’m not sure you’ve ever been woken up on the hour, every hour 24/7 but it’s hell. Try doing that after a festival where sleeping wasn’t you’re number one priority and it’s really not the one. Plus, they wouldn’t let me shower at this point, so I was really Glasto minging.


The next day, I get led off to a room to see the consultant, plus, because Bristol is a university hospital, about three million student Doctors. More cocaine in the eyeball, more of the yellow dye that makes your snot fluorescent. This long line of people looking in my eyeball all make that noise that I think Doctors should be banned from, you know the one, kind of ‘ewww’ or ‘oh’… And send me back to bed to continue on my eye drop nightmare. Maybe it was later that morning the results from my scrape came back, I can’t really remember —  but I’d got a bacteria called pseudomonas aeruginosa. Super common, one of those things that all of us have all over us all the time, but super unusual to get you in the eye as far as I can tell. And this one really went to town. I had a 7mm x 7mm x 3mm ulcerated abscess on my cornea. Super gross. Now knowing what it was, they took the antibiotics down to the specific ones for that nasty and we carried on with the eye drop, IV, painkiller, sandwich, eyed drop, more podcasts routine.


At this point, although totally unable to see in that eye, I’m still surprised they’re not letting me go. I’m telling my folks they might as well wait to come up until they can just pick me up and take me home. I don’t realise the whole families worrying (it runs in our genes I’m afraid), but they’re plotting and my older brother turns up off a train from London. Which was super nice actually and after I actually ended up staying in nearly a week, was very welcome.


RELATED READING: An open letter to my organ donor


He bought me new joggers too, so you know, win-win. Nike ones — I just wanted H&M, but I’m not gonna complain. He also brought me the biggest underwear known to man, which I might complain about. He swears it was the wrong shelf not a reflection on the size of my ass though, so I’ll give him that. Brother Topf stayed in a hotel and came and sat with me the next day, chatting, taking pictures of eye drops being administered and watching the nurses pry open my gammy eye with wet cotton buds. You know the eye gook you wake up within the corner of your eyes? Imagine that times a billion, it literally fused my eyelashes shut every hour. Ew. I’d almost forgotten about that. Anyway…


He had to head home some point that evening and I carried on with the damn near the constant application of eye drops, though I now knew they were working as the doctors had started making an ‘ooooh’ or an ‘mmmmhm’ noise when they looked at it instead of the ‘ew’ of a few days before.

I’ve never been squeamish. I used to faint a lot, but that’s because I’ve got mega low blood pressure, I’m not one for having a funny turn when I see blood or getting bothered when someone talks about puss at the dinner table. I mean, I’d rather they didn’t, but it’s not going to make me lose my dinner. I watched them put my IV in, I happily give blood and according to my Mama, I put myself on the organ donor list when I was about 4 (I was a strong-willed child, what can I say). So when I passed out on Saturday that was new.


My care in the hospital was fantastic. I really can’t fault it, it truly is an incredible service. But most of it in my case was done by nurses. Every morning, at about 8, the Doctor and his students would call me in, dye, dilate and numb my eye and have a look. Saturday morning was different though — a different Doctor and no students. I guess they’re on a different schedule or something, but anyway, a Doctor I hadn’t seen before. Same routine though. Numb, dye, dilate. Chin on the rest, look left, look right. And I asked the same question I had every day: ‘Am I going to get my eyesight back?’.


A question, they’d been cagey about answering, understandably so.


‘It’s a very serious infection you have here Miss Topf’, she said. ‘You’re very likely going to need a cornea transplant’.


‘Oh', I replied, ‘how do they do that then?’


‘Well, once a person dies, they harvest the corn…’


And that’s as much as I heard as I slipped out of consciousness. Out for the count, came around to a load of people fanning me with clipboards and someone slapping me (very gently) in the face. I always thought that was just in movies... Then back to bed to lie down a little more. I’ve done a whole lot of that recently.


They let me go home in the end. They’d taken my eye drops down to once every hour between the hours of 6 am and midnight, which my angel of a mother mainly did for me. Though my sisters did their fair share of the administration to be fair.


I can’t remember the exact timescale of these things, but they went down to once every two hours between 6 am and midnight, to 8 times a day, to 6 times a day, to 4 times a day and no Atropine. I saw the consultant every two days, then four and then miracle of miracles I didn’t have to see him for a week. Now I’m on a steroid twice a day plus as much eye lube as I can get in there and I’m in the middle of four weeks of not seeing him. I almost miss him…


So a little over seven weeks later, I’m still blind in that eye. As far as I can tell, I will be until they start considering me for a transplant (hold onto your hats everyone, I don’t want anyone fainting at the thought…), which they said will perhaps be in a year or so. Frustratingly, they give you very little information on these things, which I totally understand – they want to get your hopes up less than your best friend when they’ve thought your little crush has feelings back. Though I can’t admit to being that rational all the time – talk to my Mum if you want to hear some real good ‘why meeeeeeeeeeeeee…’ stories.


In the words of the Fresh Prince, my whole life got turned flip upside down. I’ve been plagued by photo-phobia — extreme sensitivity to light, which makes it incredibly hard to do anything, I haven’t been able to work in the same industry that I was, I had to surrender my driver's licence and I’ve had to move back in with my parents. In fact, I’ve had to stop being so pig-headedly independent altogether. But I’ve also stopped missing cups when I make a cup of tea, I don’t feel like I’m going to fall down the stairs because of the disorientation anymore and, I’m not still on so much codeine that I’m a total space cadet, so you know it’s not all bad. And in general, people are pretty fantastic you know… It turns out I really will get by with a little help from my friends.


RELATED READING: An open letter to my organ donor

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