My Travels with Keratoconus

By Carolyn Hammett

Carolyn at Forum  5 x 7 190 res. Traveling abroad with KC can be a challenge to say the least! I’ve been doing it for over 30 years, and you’d think that I would have encountered about every contact lens obstacle known to anyone, but believe me, situations constantly arise that keep me on my toes .

I have advanced KC in one eye, and wear a piggyback lens (Rose K over Accuvue) for 4-5 hours on a “good eye day”. Low grade KC in the other eye is corrected with a regular rigid gas permeable lens (RGP) which I can wear for 8-10 hours. Due to low wearing time in the bad eye, I’ve learned to see one-eyed when necessary when traveling, as well as sometimes at home on “bad-eye-days”!

In my travels, I’ve been to most Western European countries many times, as well as to India, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Jordan, Kenya, Tanzania and several South African countries. I’ve had to deal with removing, cleaning and reinserting my lenses in some pretty strange places, including a shepherd’s hut at the top of Nimrud Dagh in Eastern Turkey, dark temples in Egypt, outdoors at archaeological sites in Macedonia and on a helipad waiting for a helicopter in Zimbabwe, as well as in just about every museum and church in Italy! I gave up on trying to deal with them in dusty vans on game drives in Kenya, but I’ve used broken temple columns and park benches for “desks” on which to work with my lenses, as well as bus seats and airplane tray tables. (I don’t recommend the latter.) A clean public restroom is a great luxury!

I must say that I’ve never let KC stop me from traveling. I don’t drive on highways and I can’t drive at night, but I can go anywhere a plane flies, and I do. I’m not letting KC stop me from seeing the world! Over the years, by accumulated experience, the following things have emerged from my travels.

It almost goes without saying that one should never leave home for foreign turf without a duplicate pair of lenses. I keep two pairs in rotation, so I take my extras wet-packed. Some people prefer to take them dry-packed. But just be sure to take a spare. Being paranoid, I have been known to take a “back up for the back up”, that being lenses that I used before my last prescription change.

Then comes two kits: one for my day bag, and one to use in the hotel room. The “day bag kit”, in addition to small trial sized bottles of cleaning, disinfecting, and rewetting solutions which I beg from my contact lens fitter, contains a clean white handkerchief and hand wipes. The handkerchief is the “tablecloth” on which I operate. It provides a clean surface to work on in case I am in less than optimal circumstances, which is often! Also a dropped lens is easier to see, and will usually stick to the hankie and not bounce if accidentally dropped. Depending on travel destination, I sometimes keep a big flat rubber drain stopper in my day bag handy for restrooms with no drain plug over the hole in the sink. My hotel room kit also includes emergency Rx antibiotic drops from my cornea specialist, and over-the-counter eye drops for irritated eyes.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to remove, clean and start over with my lenses when out for the day. This actually isn’t any different from being at home or at work, except that when abroad, you often can’t choose your place to work with lenses or depend on the quality of the water from the tap (if there is a tap!). So I also keep a small bottle of commercially bottled water (not tap water) in my day bag. I use a clean empty trial-sized wetting solution bottle for my “emergency water”. I know this isn’t totally sterile, but I also know that in most cases it is safer that what comes out of the tap.

Of course, all this paraphernalia means that I go around looking like a “bag lady” by the time I add “The Kit” to the other essentials that are required in my travel life, which includes camera equipment, glasses which I wear over my contacts, and other daily needs.

If you are lucky enough to be able to wear your RGPs from dawn till dusk, consider yourself way ahead of the game. Traveling is a lot simpler that way. I was able to do that for about 15 years, but then life got complicated.

Being able to wear my RGPs for only 4-6 hours a day means dealing with them in public restrooms, archaeological sites, churches, tombs and museums. A church pew or bench to spread out my clean white hankie is a perk. I found that window sills work quite well in a pinch. Most museum guards are sympathetic and will let me use their chair in the corner in an emergency.

For what it’s worth, contact lens solutions are not always available if you run out while abroad. Most major cities will have many brands in their pharmacies or eye care shops, but in some third world countries, you can be hard pressed to even find sterile ophthalmic saline. So pack plenty of what you need for the journey. And keep it in your carry-on, unless you have more faith in the baggage handling system than I do!

I’ve had to learn to go “one-eyed” a lot as well as to divide and adjust my lens wearing time to be able to see well for what is most important each day. This brings us full circle to dealing with lens changes while “out in the field” You learn to be creative!

My latest challenge is dealing with piggybacks while traveling, and I haven’t quite come to grips with this yet. But it isn’t going to stop me. My kit is getting larger, with solutions for both RGP’s and soft lenses, which means bigger purses, when most ladies are carrying something the size of a wallet! So if you are in the Vatican, the Louvre or the Karnak Temple, the lady with the big bag will be me! Stop and say Hi!

We’re going to Scandinavia and St. Petersburg in July, and have Egypt, Greece and Kenya on the schedule for next year. I’m not letting kc ruin or run my life. It is frustrating to have resort to seeing one-eyed at times in my travels, but it never ceases to amaze me how well one eye can work, and (for me) how quickly I can make the transition from seeing with both eyes to just using one eye. And that is more than a lot of people have! (I have to remind myself of that now and then!)

Carolyn loves to travel and goes abroad several times a year with her husband, a retired physician. She is retired from teaching Art History. Building her wearing time around teaching duties KC never interfered with her career. Carolyn played the violin in a regional symphony for 18 years as well. Photography is a passion, and she pursues it diligently in her travels.