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A young woman sustained eye damage while attempting to view the total solar eclipse

Adaptive optics imaging revealed that the damage is shaped how the eclipse looked

CNN  — 

On August 21, 26-year-old Nia Payne was hoping to view the solar eclipse in Staten Island, New York. What she didn’t expect was to end up in the emergency room with a crescent shape blocking the center of her vision.

The eye damage she sustained while viewing the total solar eclipse in August is detailed in a case report published Thursday in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology.

A technology called adaptive optics allowed doctors to view the damage on a cellular level and see the microscopic structures in her eyes. Previously, this kind of detail could be seen only with glass slides and a microscope.

An attempt to view the eclipse

Eclipse viewers had been warned to view the event only through special glasses: “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 of 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.”

However, there was a widespread shortage of eclipse glasses due to the event’s popularity, and Payne didn’t have any.

Watching the celestial event outside her boyfriend’s workplace, she noticed the changes around her, as it looked like dusk during the day. Payne looked up at the sun with her naked eye for a few seconds, but it was too bright.

She approached a woman nearby and asked whether she could borrow her glasses. The woman did not appear interested in viewing the eclipse and said she was “blind as a bat anyway.” She told Payne she had borrowed them from a friend and agreed to let Payne use them.

Payne put on the glasses and looked up at the partial eclipse for 15 to 20 seconds. She didn’t know what eclipse glasses were supposed to look like, but she remembered that the sun seemed particularly bright – like looking at it with sunglasses on.

“But it didn’t bother me, because I thought it would be a great experience to catch a solar eclipse the proper way,” Payne told CNN.

She removed the glasses, returned them to the woman and left.

Six hours later, Payne noticed a weird dark spot in the center of her vision. She told her friends and family, but they told her to wait a day. After all, everyone had been outside looking up at the sun, and it was normal to feel “weird.”

The next day, Payne lost vision in the center of her left eye.

A case study develops

She went to the emergency room of a hospital in Staten Island, but she said they didn’t appear to take her complaint seriously and wouldn’t look at her retina.

A friend suggested Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, and Payne went there two days after the eclipse. From that emergency room, she was referred to specialists at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai.

She was diagnosed with solar retinopathy, retinal damage from exposure to solar radiation, in both eyes. It was worse in her dominant left eye; the damage in her right eye was minimal and more manageable.

There is no treatment for solar retinopathy. It may improve or worsen, but is a permanent condition.

The retina is “the camera film of the eye,” and it interprets light and turns into electrical energy so the brain can understand it, said Dr. Avnish Deobhakta, author of the new report and an ophthalmologist with the eye and ear infirmary.

Payne asked the doctors whether the damage was from attempting to look at the sun with her naked eye for a few seconds, but they said it looked as though it was caused by staring at the sun for some time.

Doctors believed that the eclipse glasses Payne used were not up to international safety standards. The American Astronomical Society had warned that it had received alarming reports of potentially unsafe eclipse glasses “flooding the market.” Some bore a fake stamp to claim that the filters met the ISO