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Detached Retina: An Eye Emergency

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My friend Gail almost lost her sight to detached retina. She consulted an ophthalmologist because she saw flashes of light when there was no camera in the room, and she knew something was wrong. Her first eye doctor didn't get it – and I don't think I'll ever understand this – he told her to come back in a month. Fortunately, she had a business trip scheduled for Houston and a friend who encouraged her to contact a retina specialist at the Baylor College of Medicine.

Gail's meeting was over at 11:00 am, so she found a phone book and called the Baylor eye department. By 1:30 pm, she was in the doctor's office. He recommended immediate surgery. Gail had a flight scheduled back home to Austin for that evening, so the Baylor doctor connected her with an Austin retina specialist who agreed to see her at 11 pm. After a brief exam, the doctor told her to come back prepared for surgery first thing in the morning. Less than 24 hours after she got the diagnosis, Gail was under general anesthesia getting both eyes repaired.

The story has a happy ending. Today Gail has vision corrected to 20/20 with glasses. I appreciate her willingness to share her experience.

There are three types of retinal detachment:
1. Mechanical. The retina can develop a hole or tear from eye or head trauma. People with severe near-sightedness are at increased risk. This is the most common variety.
2. Tractional. Fibrous scar tissue can develop on the inside of the retina from diabetic retinopathy, eye trauma, or even as a complication of surgery to repair earlier retinal damage. Scar tissue can contract and pull the retina away from the underlying choroid layer of the eye.
3. Exudative. In this type, fluid from the choroid forms a blister and pushes the retina away. The cause may be inflammation or age-related macular degeneration.

Whatever the cause, symptoms of detached retina include the sensation of light flashes, “floaters” in the visual field, or a dark cloud or curtain in front of the eyes. There is no pain, but the visual experience may be disturbing. Call your eye doctor immediately if you experience these symptoms, and make sure you are satisfied with the diagnosis. Prompt surgery can be 100% successful in preventing loss of vision.


Sharon Fekrat, M.D. and Jennifer Weizer, M.D., editors, “All about Your Eyes: A Practical Guide in Plain English from the Physicians at the Duke University Eye Center”, Duke University Press, 2006.

Gary H. Cassel, M.D. et al, “The Eye Book: A Complete Guide to Eye Disorders and Health”, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Linda Fugate is a scientist and writer in Austin, Texas. She has a Ph.D. in Physics and an M.S. in Macromolecular Science and Engineering. Her background includes academic and industrial research in materials science. She currently writes song lyrics and health articles.

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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