Wednesday 18 July 2018

How early intervention saved a little girl's sight

When Nikola Plata's parents noticed an odd shine in her eye, they decided to get her checked fairly quickly. They tell Joy Orpen that early intervention is what saved their little girl's sight - and possibly her life as well

Liga Plata and Liam Corr with their daughter Nikola. Photo: Fergal Philips.
Liga Plata and Liam Corr with their daughter Nikola. Photo: Fergal Philips.

A couple's determination to leave nothing to chance is one of the reasons why their eight-year-old daughter is alive today. It's a tale that may prompt others to take action before it's too late. That is certainly what Liam Corr and his partner Liga, who are both in their 40s, hope will happen.

Their story begins in Rush, Co Dublin where Liam used to raise plants to sell to vegetable growers. There, he fell in love with agri-worker Liga Plata, who comes from Latvia. In mid-2007, they were delighted when their daughter Nikola was born.

Liam says Nikola had no health problems, apart from the usual childhood ailments. However, late in 2013, he and Liga began to notice a "strange shine" in the six-year-old's right eye. It was only an occasional thing at first, but as Christmas came and went, the shine became more obvious. "At times, you'd see a sort of half-moon," explains Liga.

So on January 6, 2014, they took her to Specsavers in Swords, where she had a thorough examination. "Pictures were taken of the eye and then she was seen by optician Sean Douglas, who said the images showed a cloud forming," explains Liam. "He urged us to go to A&E. We landed up at Temple Street [Children's University Hospital]. The doctor there said she'd never seen anything like it and told us to come back in two days." When they returned, Nikola was examined by Professor Michael O'Keefe, who specialises in paediatric eye surgery. He immediately ordered an MRI scan.

"The staff had to inject a dye into her vein before they put Nikola in the scanning drum," says Liga. "They were very reassuring, so she was really calm throughout the whole procedure. Later she had further eye tests under anaesthetic."

Soon a diagnosis of unilateral retinoblastoma was confirmed. This is a rare condition, mainly affecting young children, that causes a malignant tumour to form in the retina. If left untreated, the cancer may spread to the other eye, and to other parts of the body, including the brain and the spine. Nikola also had vitreous "seedings" - minuscule fragments of tumour in the eye. "We were warned that the tumour had to be dealt with quickly," explains Liam. "Otherwise it could mean a call to the church, instead of the hospital."

An initial assessment of Nikola's situation pointed to the removal of the affected eye. Liam and Liga were stunned. They did not want that eye removed. Who could say that the same thing wouldn't happen to the other one? "I pleaded for an alternative solution," says Liam. "My very real fear was that she'd be blind for the rest of her life."

Given that only a handful of cases of retinoblastoma occur in Ireland each year, experience in dealing with the condition is somewhat limited. So Prof O'Keefe suggested contacting centres of excellence for this type of cancer in Canada and Switzerland. He emailed them Nikola's medical records and summoned Liam and Liga as soon as he got a response.

Just four days after they first walked through the doors of Temple Street Hospital, they learned that the top experts in Canada agreed the only solution was to remove the eye, while the Swiss doctors thought they might be able to save it. "We were completely downcast when we heard the Canadian response," says Liam, "and we rejoiced when we heard the verdict from Switzerland."

The next few days were characterised by a frenzy of form-filling, phone calls and acute anxiety. Liam sent off the paperwork for the HSE's treatment abroad scheme. When he contacted them by phone, he says he was told that applications generally take 15 to 20 days. So he explained that Nikola couldn't afford to wait that long. Thankfully, a few days later, the HSE application was approved. "I sat in the car and cried and cried," admits Liam.

Within days, they had arrived at the Jules Gonin Hospital in Lausanne, where Nikola was examined by Professor Francis Munier. "She was categorised as group E, the last stage," explains Liga. "After that, they would have had no option but to remove the eye. We were told that if we'd waited one more week, it would have been too late to save the eye, and it could have spread, as this is an aggressive form of cancer." The following morning, another examination was done under anaesthetic; Nikola's first chemotherapy was also administered directly into the eye during that procedure. After a few hours in recovery, she was able to go back to the hotel, wearing a plastic protective shield.

There were two prongs to Nikola's treatment: intra-arterial and intravitreal. In the first instance, (intra-arterial) a tiny tube was inserted into an artery in her thigh and then coaxed up through the body, before entering the ophthalmic artery. The chemo was then delivered to the tumour. In the second instance, (intravitreal) medication was injected directly into the eye to eliminate the "seedings". After their second visit to Switzerland, Liam decided to close his plant-growing business, so he could concentrate on supporting Nikola in her recovery. He now drives a lorry for a relative. The family made a total of 24 visits to Switzerland. Nikola has now been cancer-free for two years.

Liam and Liga are eternally grateful to Prof O'Keefe for sending them to his colleague in Switzerland so speedily. "We met people from all over the world who have children whose lives have been saved by Prof Munier," explains Liam. "He has huge experience in treating kids like Nikola. This disease presents differently in every single child, and requires very specialised treatment. And he gives that to them. The only way I can describe Prof Munier is God's right hand." Liam and Liga are also immensely grateful to Sister Bernie Lanigan who so ably assisted Prof O'Keefe in his work. "She did so much for us," says Liam.

He also thanks Sean Douglas for putting them on high alert, and to St Catherine's National School staff in Rush, who took such great care of their very special daughter. "If she so much as sneezed, they called us," says Liga. "And even though she missed three months of school, they helped her catch up." With that, Nikola smiles sweetly before resuming the important business of eating her delicious chocolate croissant.

Specsavers says eye examinations are an "important health check". To find your local Specsavers store (the chain has 50 nationwide) or to make an appointment, see

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