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RISING ABOVE ADVERSITIES

Alan_Page1_CircleFOUR YEARS AGO, ARTIST AND DESIGNER ALAN AZZOPARDI STARTED LOSING SIGHT IN HIS RIGHT EYE. TODAY, THE 38-YEAR-OLD IS ON THE WAITING LIST FOR A CORNEA TRANSPLANT. HE TELLS CLAUDIA CALLEJA HOW HIS FADING VISION OPENED HIS MIND TO A NEW WAY OF PERCEIVING HIS ART.

Soft shades of blacks and greys blend seamlessly to create texture-rich images that could easily be mistaken for old photographs at first glance. A closer look reveals they are drawn portraits of recognizable faces — late actor Robin Williams, scientist Albert Einstein, Maltese singer Ira Losco and tenor Joseph Calleja.

“I always drew. But my drawings were never as good as they are today: Alan says, as he leafs though his drawings in his studio. “I learnt to use the vision of the good eye. Now, I focus more on the shadows. I no longer see ‘the nose’ and ‘the eyes: When I focus, I see shadows. I create the face using those shadows.” Alan does not see from his right eye. His eyesight started fading four years ago and, despite seeing several specialists locally and abroad, the cause remains unknown. But this did not stop him from doing what he loves.

“Rather than allowing my disability to destroy me and stop me from drawing, I learnt. It opened my eyes to a whole different way of looking at my art. It opened my mind: he says adding that he also came to realise the lack of knowledge about eye care. “I feel there isn’t enough awareness in Malta. I’ve been reading about it for four years. With my story I want to encourage others not to give up and create awareness to look after their eyes” he says.

FADING VISION

Problems with his eyesight started when he went on an adventure holiday to Chamonix, France, that included canoeing and canyoning. One evening during his holiday, he started suffering from blurry vision in his right eye. He went to a pharmacy and was given eye drops, but there was no improvement. On his return to Malta he went to see his doctor, who referred him to hospital for further investigations. Over these years he was seen by various specialists and prescribed treatments for a range of possible causes to his situation.

The problem is that his cornea — the front transparent part of the eye — is damaged. But the cause remains unknown. As his cornea suffered more and more damage, his eyesight just got worse and, today, he cannot see at all through his right eye. All I see is white. It’s as though I’m looking through frosted glass: he describes.
About a year ago, matters got worse when he started experiencing frequent painful inflammations that would result in his eye getting red and swollen.

“It feels as though I have crumbs in my eye — the cornea is inflamed and bumpy and scratched. So when I blink the eyelid scrapes against it and swells: he says. Desperate for an answer, a few months ago he went to Moorfields Eye Hospital in the UK. But, even there, experts did not give him a diagnosis. He was told his eye problems could have been caused by a form of herpes from water, which led him to suspect a lake he swam in while in Chamonix.

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SIDE EFFECTS

Not knowing what exactly triggered his eye problem has been one of the hardest things to deal with. “I’ve gone through all sorts of tests, including brain scans. The first year was tough, since they start checking for all sorts of things including a brain tumour… I’d spend weeks waiting for results. It wasn’t easy but, all the way, I’ve had incredible support from local ophthalmologists. They’ve really been amazing” he says.

Alan’s work — designing and creating signage — is dependent on his eyesight, as are his hobbies that include drawing and collecting cars and motorcycles. “So all the things I do are linked to my eyesight. But I did not give up,” he says. For the past six months he has been on the waiting list for a cornea transplant but, in order to qualify, his eye has to be healthy, which means he has to control the inflammations. These are currently being kept under control through treatment.

“What bothers me is that I am dependent on someone else dying. If someone had to give me the option of an artificial cornea, I would take it. I feel guilty that someone has to die for
me to be able to see. Especially since I’m 38 and my donor would have to be my age or younger — it’s not a nice thing. If I were not in pain and guaranteed that I would remain stable, I would remain as I am:’ he says. His loss of vision brought about a series of side effects to his life: he lost his sense of depth and had to relearn how to calculate the distance of objects in front of him; he cannot drive after a certain time of day; light hurts him and he has to be careful not to expose his eye to unhealthy environments.

However, incredible as this sounds, he has also managed to find an upside. This disability opened up a different world of art to him. To illustrate his point, as it were, Alan stands up and gets out a drawing he completed a few years ago. “Although my old paintings were good, the shadows come out stronger now,” he says as he points towards the soft shadings making up his newer portraits. Each one takes me about 10 hours to complete. First I do the sketch; then I fill in the detail using raw charcoal, which I smudge with my fingers or brushes. I focus mostly on the eyes – I believe they are everything”

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CARE FOR YOUR EYES

Each year between 10 and 20 corneal transplants are carried out inMalta depending on the availability, explains Ophthalmologist Franco Mercieca who adds there are around 25 patients on the waiting list.

The three most common eye problems in Malta, he adds, are cataracts, glaucoma (a group of eye diseases resulting in damage to the optic nerve and vision loss) and diabetic retinopathy (damage to the tiny blood vessels that nourish the retina).

While cataract formation is mainly an ageing problem, both glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy can be detected early, treated and, therefore, prevented.

“We should all have our eyes checked at the age of 40 to 45 in order to gauge the risk of glaucoma especially in those who have a higher risk, that is, family history, myopes, diabetics… As for diabetes, eating healthy and living a healthy lifestyle prevent the condition as much as possible but, once diabetic, a patient needs to have a tight control of his/her blood sugar and regular checkups,” he says.

In the young generation, the commonest cause of diseases leading to corneal transplantation are corneal ectasia (a group of eye disorders characterised by thinning of the cornea) and dystrophies (a group of rare hereditary disorders characterised by abnormal deposition of substances in the cornea) apart from infection, especially related to contact lens wear.

 
© Sunday Circle] December 2015