When Asa was 5 or 6 months old, Selam noticed something about his eyes. Under certain light conditions, they would reflect light back, the way cat’s eyes do.
“This child has animal’s eyes,” she said.
Neither Kuri nor I thought much of it. It was amusing, we thought; a trick of the light; not a cause for alarm.
When I arrived in Ethiopia 3 days ago, Selam had just come across some information online that suggested this could be a sign of disease. Whiteness at the back of the pupils is a characteristic of retinoblastoma, a cancer of the eye. It’s rare, but more common in infants than adults.
Another sign of the disease is that in flash photographs with “red eye”, the eyes of affected children appear yellow or white rather than red.
Going through old photos, Selam noted that this “yellow eye” phenomenon showed up for Asa in photos from 3 or 4 months ago.
|The earliest photo of Asa showing "yellow eye". Note the contrast with Asa's companion Mekdas, who has red eye.|
Yesterday morning we took Asa to an ophthalmologist in Addis Ababa who examined his eyes and corroborated the possibility of retinoblastoma. In the afternoon he got an ultrasound, which confirmed the diagnosis. Present in both eyes, it’s more advanced in the left eye than the right.
Left untreated, retinoblastoma can kill within 2 years. Each year, 40 or 50 children are diagnosed in the UK, and 1 or 2 die. As with other cancers, the prognosis depends largely on the stage of the disease.
In Asa’s case, we don’t yet know the stage of the disease. A CT scan today should tell us more. At the least, his vision is likely to be impaired.
But Asa shows no other signs of illness. He looks and sounds like a normal, healthy child: inquisitive, playful, alert to everything around him.
Within the last two days he’s made great progress in getting around on two feet, yesterday walking across the living room holding his mother’s hand.
He’s begun to say, “Mama,” using the word to call Selam to him, or as a response when she says his name.
It’s remarkable to be told by a doctor that your child losing his sight is a good outcome. It will take some time for us to see things from this perspective. Right now, scenarios worse than blindness are difficult to contemplate.
On Monday we’ll fly to England to seek treatment there.
We’re hoping and praying that Asa’s sight will be preserved. And when we reflect on it, we recognize that we would love him just as much had he been born blind.