Sitting at a restaurant earlier this year, Alexandria White saw black spots float across her left eye. At first, she thought she stared into the light for too long. When the flecks didn’t dissipate, she started worrying.
“It did have me nervous. I like to draw a lot so it was stressful,” the 21-year-old artist for Staten Island told TODAY. “It is kind of weird to think about. We normally don’t think that much about our eyes, we just see.”
White, who said she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was 2, knows it's especially important for her to be proactive about her health. She monitors her blood sugar, uses insulin pens and visits an eye doctor annually.
In type 1 diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes, the pancreas stops making insulin and blood sugar increases dramatically. While type 2 diabetes can be reversed with diet and exercise, there is no cure for type 1. The approximately 5% of diabetes patients who have this form of the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, depend on insulin to maintain their health.
“It is a tricky disease to be sure," White said. "You have to focus and be on top of what you eat and your activity level.”
Eye problems are common in people with diabetes, especially when blood sugar levels get out of control. White said that, as a teen, she often snacked, which caused her blood sugar to be erratic. After years of struggles, she's learned to controlling her blood sugar better.
White understood she was at greater risk for vision problems because she's had diabetes for most of her life. When she started having problems, she sought treatment immediately.
“Once I noticed the specks, I went to the doctor,” she said. “The eyes are pretty fragile.”
White learned she had diabetic retinopathy, a condition where blood vessels in the eye become abnormal and “break easily and cause bleeding in the eyes,” said Dr. Gennady Landa, retina surgeon at New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai. It's the most common cause of blindness in people with diabetes, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
“When you have diabetic retinopathy in young patients like Alexandria, it is very aggressive,” he told TODAY. "She had a lot of abnormal blood vessels growing in her retina."
The bleeding and broken vessels caused scar tissue to develop in White's eyes, which were pulling her retina off center.
“My vision in my left eye had started getting weird, blurry and wobbly,” she said.
As White worried about potentially losing her sight, she tried using her art skills to focus on the positive. She attempted to draw the spots she was seeing in her eyes, but the broken blood vessels moved so much it felt impossible to truly capture them. Soon, she could barely see and had to give up things she loves like reading, playing video games, watching movies and drawing.
“She lost the ability to draw,” Landa said. “It was very difficult emotionally to deal with.”
Landa recommended surgery on her left eye to help improve her vision. In July, he removed the scar tissue, flattened her retina and removed a cataract. While that helped the left eye, Landa noticed that her right eye also displayed symptoms of diabetic retinopathy.
“I saw that the scar tissue was beginning to pull the retina and cause the same aggravated picture as in the left eye,” he said.
In September, White had another surgery, on her right eye.
“The surgery was very complicated, as well,” Landa said, adding that the outcome made it worth it.
“It’s always rewarding to me as a surgeon to have patients like Alexandria," he said. “We were very emotionally touched that, after the surgery, she was getting better and drawing."
White said she hopes her story will remind people how important it is to visit an eye doctor when something feels off, even if the symptoms seem minor.
“Just don’t take your vision for granted; it is something we kind of wake up in the morning and it is just there," she said. "Your perception of the world can be completely changed and taken from you.”