Sunday 25 August 2019

Seeing sense - how eye injections and laser surgery saved retired garda's sight

As people age, they are more prone to physical problems. This is also true when it comes to the eyes. John Mulligan tells our reporter that his sight was saved because he sought help as soon as a problem arose

Retired garda John Mulligan. Phot: Mark Condren
Retired garda John Mulligan. Phot: Mark Condren

Joy Orpen

John Mulligan, 71, loves photography, history, rugby, reading and, most importantly of all, his beloved grandchildren.

So having good eyesight is very important to him, especially now that he has retired from the Garda Siochana. But there was a time not so long ago when he feared he might be heading into a world of visual darkness.

John's working life began when he was just a teenager. "I was the youngest of 11 children," he explains. "My mother was 45 when she had me and, by then, was pretty tired. That meant I had to help out quite a bit. We had a modest three-bedroom house in Limerick and, even though all 11 of us were never living there at the same time, it wasn't that unusual for four boys to share a bed." John's father, who worked on the railways for most of his life, was a Pioneer; his mother was, too. So, even though there wasn't a drop of alcohol in the house, there were lots of get-togethers and plenty of music. "My brother played an ancient harmonium with pedal pumps," John recalls.

When John was 14, his father retired from the railways, and that signalled the end of John's education. "Back then, secondary school wasn't free; so, there wasn't the money any more," he explains. He then spent the next two years training as a commis (beginner) chef with the Savoy Group. But he doesn't feel he had the makings of an Irish Heston Blumenthal. "I was a competent cook, but not a good chef," he says, without a hint of regret.

John jogged along doing different jobs until the very day of his 21st birthday, when he sat the Garda exams. "I'd always had an idea I'd like to be a garda," he says. Being a serious reader and having brushed up on his Irish, John was able to sail through the exams. Following training at Templemore, he was transferred to Bridewell Garda Station, in Dublin, where he earned about £14 a week, while living in accommodation at the station. Over the years, he encountered many infamous criminals.

"I tried my best not to go to Dublin," he admits. "But in the end, I grew to love its people and its history." By then, John was stepping out with a young lady called Mary, whom he had first spotted at the Jetland Ballroom in Limerick. "She was wearing a pink mini skirt and had lovely long legs," he says with a twinkle in his eye. In 1970, they married, and now have three sons and three grandchildren.

In 1978, John was promoted to the rank of sergeant. He was then posted to Ballyconnell in Co Cavan. "It was a lovely farming community with very decent people," he remembers. "Nothing much happened there, but we were kept busy manning the checkpoints. I was sent out into the community to talk about the guards and safety issues. I really enjoyed that interaction."

John's next posting was to Finglas in Dublin. "There were a handful of people who caused trouble," he recollects. "If you locked them up, everything would go quiet, and then it was a really lovely place to be. But as soon as those people got out of jail, the fire would reignite." In 1989, John was promoted to the rank of inspector and he moved to Santry. The airport then loomed big on his radar. Francois Mitterrand, Margaret Thatcher and "charismatic" Bill Clinton, all became part of this new world of his.

When John became a superintendent in 1996, he was posted back to Templemore. The wheel had finally come full circle. Following a subsequent three-year stint liaising with the community in Dublin, John left the force and became director of corporate security for a multinational pharmaceutical company.

"After 10 years of that, I decided I'd had enough," he volunteers, "so Mary and I went travelling." And wherever the Mulligans roamed, John's camera went too. "In 2005, my family gave me my first digital camera, and I was hooked," he says. He now has an arsenal of good cameras and uses them to record all the wonderful places he and Mary visit, with New Zealand being the most visually spectacular so far.

A loyal member of international public-speaking club Toastmasters, he also makes video recordings of some of the speeches. Since John also loves rugby, is a voracious reader and an avid historian, having good eyesight is crucial to him. So last year when he noticed a distortion in his right eye, he didn't hang about. The very next morning, he visited his GP, who referred him to the emergency eye clinic at the Mater Misericordiae University Hospital.

"I was there all day," says John. "They did a lot of tests. I then had to wait a couple of weeks to see a specialist. I was very worried. I was afraid I'd end up being blind. Then I wouldn't be able to do photography, read or drive - all the things that are so important to me. And, most importantly, I wouldn't be able to see my grandchildren. The problem went from being a distortion, to a rainbow effect, which was caused by refracted light. Then I developed a big, black blob in the middle of my vision."

When John was seen by the specialist, he learned that he was suffering from age-related macular degeneration (AMD). "I was shocked. I thought this only happened to old people, and I'm only a young fella," he says, grinning.

According to Dr Mark Cahill, eye surgeon and spokesman for the Irish College of Ophthalmologists, AMD is the leading cause of sight loss in people over 50 in Ireland. "There are two types of AMD, dry and wet," he explains. "Dry AMD is typically the less severe form. All patients with AMD should take pigment supplements. Progression can be slowed by stopping smoking, [eating] a diet rich in lutein [found in leafy green vegetables], and controlling blood pressure and cholesterol.

"Dry AMD can progress to wet AMD, which is caused by leaky blood vessels under the retina. This can result in rapid vision loss. However, if wet AMD is diagnosed and treated early, 90pc of the time the sight will be stabilised, and 70pc of the time sight will be improved."

After injections in the eye, followed by treatment with a spot laser, John has made a full recovery. "Just 24 hours later, I could see the difference," he says.

"I go back every three months for an injection and a check-up. I reckon if I hadn't had this attended to quickly, I'd be blind in one eye, at least. When you have a problem with your eyes, it's important to have them checked, as soon as possible."

For more information on age-related macular degeneration, see

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