A new study published Thursday in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology informed about a 26-year-old woman from Staten Island, New York, whose retina was burned due to the energy it received while watching the August 26 eclipse.

Information does not always reach people as it should. Despite the many times that experts warned not to watch the last US total eclipse without the proper protection, doctors still expected to find new patients affected by the event. This paper showed they were not wrong at all.

Everything went darker when the moon started covering the sun. Around 70 percent of its light didn’t reach Earth, but there was another 30 percent which indeed did. When 26-year-old Nia Payne came outside her boyfriend’s workplace, she rose her look and saw the fantastic black, shiny circumference that starred one of the most important events of this year in the US.

When she found the dark ball of gas over the sky, Payne said she could only watch it for around six seconds. She then went somewhere nearby to ask for a pair of glasses that would allow her to see the eclipse easier. According to the young woman, she saw it for 18 to 20 seconds.

Solar eclipses, Photic retinopathy, New York, Aug 21 eclipse
This woman reported a crescent blocking her view at every moment after she watched the Aug. 21 eclipse without protection. Image credit: JAMA Ophthalmology

Payne got the glasses from a woman who said they left her “blind as a bat.” She didn’t know by the time how the proper sunglasses looked like, so she proceeded to wear them. Payne said she remembers that, despite the fact she was using the glasses, the sun was unusually bright.

That was because the pair of glasses she was using was not the right one.

Referring to the brightness of the sun, Payne told CNN that it didn’t bother her because she thought it would be a “great experience to catch a solar eclipse the proper way.”

Six hours later, the young woman complained her eyes were feeling “weird,” and that a dark shape was blocking her view. Her friends and family told her to wait because they thought it was normal. But for the next two day, Payne reported a black spot at the center of her vision every time she opened her eyes.

“Filters that meet the ISO 12312-2 standard reduce the sun’s brightness to a safe and comfortable level, like that of a full moon, and block harmful ultraviolet and infrared radiation as well,” Rick Fienberg, from the American Astronomical Society, said at the time. “Solar filters that meet this standard are about 100,000 times darker than ordinary sunglasses, and sunglasses don’t block infrared radiation.”

Payne decided to enter an emergency room, where she was transferred to the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai. Employing the adequate and advanced equipment, doctors scanned and detailed a crescent shape in her retinas.

A wound similar to the eclipse

Doctors asked Payne to draw on paper the form of the dark spot she was seeing. They felt amazed after realizing it was a crescent form that looked almost exactly like the eclipse by itself.

Scientists theorized how solar eclipses could damage human eyes a long time ago. Avnish Deobhakta, the co-author of the study and assistant professor of ophthalmology at Mount Sinai, told The Washington Post in a phone interview that this paper proved doctors’ “intuitions were correct,” and that the injury generated in Payne’s retina made her see that shape because it was a mirror image of the eclipse.

Solar eclipses, Photic retinopathy, New York, Aug 21 eclipse
America was able to see the sun being completely covered by the moon. This will not happen again in several years. Image credit: NASA

Deobhakta said that Mount Sinai has a new technology called adaptive optics, which can examine each cell in an individual’s retina. According to him, this is the first study performed with this machine. Thus, also the first that establishes the exact damage generated in the retina.

Using the technology, the researchers were able to see the photoreceptor layer of the retina. This part of the eyes takes in the sun’s light and “converts it to electrical energy,” so our brains can “make sense of light.”

“What we found is that the sun’s rays had damaged the photoreceptor layer in a very specific pattern, like a crescent,” Deobhakta said. “It really aligned with what she drew for us when we first saw her.”

Both Payne’s eyes were diagnosed with solar retinopathy. However, her left eye received the most of damage, while the right one was practically intact.

An uncommon injury

The study noted that solar retinopathy is a “rare form of retinal injury that results from direct sungazing,” which doctors have long known about it. According to the paper, it happens when the energy of the sun burns the retina.

Considering that the moon blocks not all the light in the eclipse, it was supposed that something like this could occur.

Solar eclipses, Photic retinopathy, New York, Aug 21 eclipse
Experts informed people about the proper way to see the eclipse. Image credit: Space.com

Unfortunately, there’s not a cure for this injury. It could get better if treated, but it could also get worse. However, professor Deobhakta said this new study might lead to new findings.

“So far, it’s a nightmare, and sometimes it makes me very sad when I close my eyes and see it,” Payne told CNN. “It’s embarrassing. People will assume I was just one of those people who stared blankly at the sun or didn’t check the person with the glasses.”

Payne reported that she’s struggling with her new condition, but she’s advanced since she was diagnosed. She has to sit closer to the television if she wants to watch it. However, reading has been a bit more difficult for her. Doctors told her she’s got to practice focusing with her right eye to get it better.

Source: JAMA Ophthalmology