Come on, admit it – we’ve all done it. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about… For example, you notice a pain in your foot and after a few days of it niggling away in the background you head to Google and type in the seemingly benign phrase, ‘pain in left foot’. A few clicks later, you’ve diagnosed yourself with club foot, a touch of gout, fallen arches, frostbite in the toes, arthritis in the ankle, and severe gangrene which is so far advanced that the only treatment available to you is amputation above the knee. You hobble to the kitchen, wincing at each step whilst trying not to put any weight on your doomed limb, make a cup of tea and return to Google. By this point your lower lip is trembling so much that you can’t even drink the tea. You stare at the screen with wide eyes and a white face as you skim through forums in a desperate search for something positive, but discover nothing but horror stories fit to rival ‘Frankenstein’.
Such was the case when I received a copy of a letter from my original consultant to my GP way back in approximately August 2014 which contained the phrase ‘PVR’. They say that curiosity killed the cat, and quite frankly it’s extremely fortunate that I’m not feline. “What’s PVR?”, I wondered, as I fired up my ancient laptop and headed for Google. Once it creaked into life, I found that I rapidly regretted this course of action as I read that PVR (or proliferative retinopathy) was a complication of retinal detachment, occurring in approximately 8-10% of patients. Google calmly informed me that further surgery could be undertaken to treat the PVR and reattach the retina, but warned darkly that the final visual outcome was very poor. Just to torture myself, I read on and learnt that PVR is the most common cause of failure in retinal reattachment surgery. Of course, inevitably, at this point Mr Pip made an appearance and took great delight in prodding and poking me, quietly laughing at my discomfort as my mood plummeted and my fears for the future rocketed. (Have a read of The Unwelcome Visitations of Mr Pip, if you haven’t had the (dis)pleasure of meeting this exceedingly nasty fellow.) Meanwhile, my sister, who has that sisterly sixth sense of knowing when something isn’t quite right, discovered what I’d been up to and banned me from googling any more information to do with my eyes, appointing herself as my online research assistant instead.
At my next hospital appointment, I tentatively asked my consultant about PVR and confessed to having looked it up. He gave me a telling-off, albeit a gentle one, and pointed out that those medical letters are written from one doctor to another and aren’t really meant for the patient. It was a fair point, but when the letters are copied to the patient, they’re somewhat difficult to ignore! Fast-forward a few months to my first appointment at Moorfields, and I received a similar response from the nice Irish nurse as she shook her head, rolled her eyes and sighed, “Oh no, not Dr Google!”.
I have many faults, but as stupidity isn’t one of them you’d think I’d have learnt my lesson from this. Apparently not. The next time I saw fit to consult Dr Google was after my most recent hospital appointment back with my original consultant at the Royal Surrey. As always, a copy of his letter to my GP arrived on my doormat a few days later. Upon reading, ‘Anterior segment examination revealed a right afferent pupillary defect’, I was a little unsure but not overly worried, assuming that this simply referred the fact that my right pupil no longer works properly. For months after my last surgery it was permanently dilated, making bright lights a complete nightmare to deal with. Over time, it gradually returned to something similar to its original size, and many months ago I noticed that it no longer worked properly at all – i.e. when in low light, it no longer seems to dilate as the other one does. As Moorfields had already told me that the permanent dilation was probably a result of all the laser surgery and hadn’t mentioned anything in relation to my pupil at the numerous follow-up appointments, I assumed it was nothing to worry about in the grand scheme of my spectacularly buggered up eyes. But that phrase in the letter made me want to just double-check.
I typed into Google, ‘afferent pupillary defect’, and settled back to read the results. In horror, I skimmed phrases such as ‘lesion of the optic nerve’, ‘severe retinal disease’, ‘multiple schlerosis’, and other sentences which didn’t serve to help matters, such as: ‘Afferent pupillary defect can be an ominous exam finding’. “But, but, but”, I stuttered to myself, “Surely it’s just my dodgy pupil?! But why didn’t he say anything about it at the time so that I could have checked it was nothing to worry about?” So I continued to read and click and worry a little bit, until I found the confirmation I needed, that ‘a patient with a history of total retinal detachment in one eye would manifest a relative afferent pupillary defect’. Once I’d found the same information on a few reputable sites, I began to calm down as I muttered a few choice expletives at both Dr Google and the offending hospital letter.
Obviously, my curiosity is such that I’m unlikely to simply stop looking things up and hunting around for information. But when I’m thinking calmly and logically I’m very much aware of the necessity to check reputable sites and also to ask the consultant about anything I’m not sure of. I tend to use sites such as Moorfields Eye Hospital, the NHS, RNIB, Fight for Sight, and the Thomas Pocklington Trust. I occasionally also delve into research articles, although these can often be something of a challenge to understand completely. They can also be massively depressing at times. I guess the moral of the story is ‘consult Dr Google with caution.’