Imagine you’re sitting down, enjoying your favourite game, on the lounge, sofa or maybe a nice comfortable computer chair. Everything seems reasonably normal, although there’s something just a little bit off. The corners of the screen are a bit harder to see, and occasionally you have to squint.
It’s like you rolled out of bed, except you’ve been awake for hours. You scrub your eyes, drag the grit out of the side of your eyelid. It gets better, your vision clearer, eyes more relaxed. You’d think the problem was gone, except it never seems to fully go away. Maybe you just didn’t sleep enough last night: the light from the computer screen disrupts sleeping patterns, after all.
We’ve all experienced something similar, feeling a little lethargic in the eyes, needing time to “wake up”, as it were. Some need more time to wake up than most; often that’s just the differences between humans.
Unless you’re 18-year-old Nick McGuffin from Brisbane. He loves his video games, as we all do, and he’s particularly fond of StarCraft 2. McGuffin may not be touring the world vying for glory at international championships just yet, but it’s a dream of his. In other words, he’s just your average, gaming-loving Australian – except his eyes never fully “woke up”.
Imagine that over a long period of time, you notice that every time you do wake up, the blur and fog lingers for much longer. Those moments of discomfort, clearing the gunk from your eyes, more frequent.
It never got better for Nick, only worse. “I was driving to work, and noticed poor vision/blurring of lines on the road, and I decided to get my eyes checked at the local optometrist. From there, he said ‘let’s see how things progress over the next few months’. It got worse, and I was sent to another optometrist in a city nearby. He was uncertain, and we left it for another 6 months.”
Nick’s mother Wendy Bertello, like everyone else, first thought it was the games. “Initially it was just diagnosed as lack of long distance vision usage, which the optometrist said was common with people these days as lots worked at close vision on computers, so he recommended him to go outside every day at least, and focus on something in the distance on the horizon and ‘retrain’ his brain to see clearly.”
The training didn’t work though, and after several months Nick’s eyesight continued to degrade. “We got Nick glasses, but this gave him headaches and didn’t appear to make his vision any better so we went back to that optometrist to see if the script was correct. They tested Nick’s eyes and noticed his strongest eye was the right one and his left eye was trying to compete with his right causing severe headaches,” Bertello explained.
It was then that the specialists diagnosed the cause as keratoconus, a rare degenerative disease that causes the front surface of the eye to thin and form a conical shape. Along with the potential for an incredibly fast loss of eyesight, the structural change can also cause photophobia and monocular polyopia, otherwise known as “ghost” images.
One specialist who can treat the disease is the Brisbane-based Dr James McAlister. Unfortunately, even though Nick doesn’t have to fly interstate, there’s a good chance the procedure to treat keratoconus – cross-linking – might fail. “My own experience is that the risk of continued progression after corneal cross linking is 20% for juveniles rather than 5% for adults with moderate progressive keratoconus,” Dr McAlister wrote in a brochure about the disease. On top of that, cross-linking only has a 5% chance of improving Nick’s vision.
If the treatment succeeds, it’ll halt the progression of the disease; any reversal would require stepping into the territory of miracles. Even then there’s a chance that Nick will need a corneal transplant later on, and that’s just in his right eye. If the left continues to degrade, it will need the same treatment.
But because the cross-linking procedure hasn’t advanced past the trial stages, the procedure isn’t covered by Medicare or private-health insurance – and it’s a cost Nick’s family can’t afford right now.
“Our situation is that his father lives overseas and doesn’t want to help out, I have had a knee replacement at 45 due to sporting injuries in earlier life and it has since prevented me returning to work,” Wendy said. “My husband has been working 12 hour days, 6 days a week, trying to cover costs but is a casual employee and as the sugar season has finished in our district (which is the main employer in our area) his hours have been reduced to 4 days a week. He has tried to gain further employment however due to Christmas, nothing is available for him.”
It’s that kind of hopelessness, the inability to protect your family that is absolutely soul-destroying as a parent. The one objective in life, my mother once told me, was to ensure that anyone who came after me had a better life than I did, and it’s something Nick’s mother understands. “I feel terrible that I can’t provide for my son in this time of need as the doctor has said this is something we can’t postpone,” she admitted.
Luckily, Nick’s family wasn’t the only ones who wanted to help. Left with no other choice, Nick decided to make a post on SC2SEA, the hub for all things StarCraft related in Southeast Asia, explaining his situation – and the response was incredible.
Alicia Oliver-Walker, a New Zealand-based commentator for StarCraft 2 and a content editor for pro-gaming team Frenetic Array, helped to marshal those looking to answer the call. “[Nicholas] Russo, the Frenetic Array Team Manager, contacted me to say he would like to donate a signed shirt to the charity, but at that stage nothing had been decided on,” she recalled.
“I had a chat to Nick to see how he would like to proceed, a charity auction or raffle. We decided to go with a charity raffle to appeal to those who wouldn’t be able to bid on a high priced item but instead to have a chance to win with any donation made.”
It wasn’t just players and random spectators who stepped up: peripherals manufacturer Razer contacted Oliver-Walker to donate a set of Star Wars: The Old Republic mouse-pads, retailing at $50 each, and the community also provided signed shirts, free coaching, StarCraft-themed apparel and their own hard-earned cash.
“For the most part, people have been amazing … some people like myself are not financially able to support the cause so have given up their time, spread the word and made donations in the form of prizes instead. We have a very close-knit community who are always supporting our own members. I try never to focus on those who want to bring something like this down, I think it is really important for us to focus on the fact that there are so many amazing people who want Nick to have his operation,” Oliver-Walker added.
The support has been inspiring, even if the end goal is a lot of money for a community comprised mainly of teenagers, underage gamers and struggling students. “Nick didn’t tell us about this until after his first donation came in … I felt terrible that he had to do this but very proud of him at the same time,” Wendy admitted. “We are constantly told how people these days are selfish and don’t want to help others and with people who scam others, this is truly understandable, but this support is beyond my comprehension and we cannot express how honestly thankful we are.”
Around $1000 has already been raised — covering around half of the first operation — although the family has admitted that there is no guarantee their situation will improve, which is almost grotesquely ironic considering how difficult things have been already. Since the middle of last year, for example, Nick has been battling depression after a lack of funds forced him to drop out of university.
While that’s slowly being conquered with the support of Nick’s girlfriend, the after-effects of the procedure are excruciating. “The treatment, although not painful in itself, is supposedly very painful the night after surgery, equitable to childbirth or a bluebottle sting … no mother wants to see their child go through that,” Wendy explained, adding that Nick will require follow-ups in three months, six months and a year’s time.
But if Nick and his family have shown anything so far, it’s that they’re built to survive. And despite a reputation for lobotomised misogynists, incessant trolling and a stereotype threatened by colour, gender, race and a can of Lynx, gamers are sharing what little funds they have to stop Nick from going blind.
That’s a gesture which sings loud and clear above all the recent hatred and drama, and the first chorus may have just begun. There’s several days before the charity draw comes to an end and another fortnight before the first step in a long and painful chapter of Nick’s life. But there’s no doubt that if Nick walks away with a functioning pair of eyes, it isn’t religion or philosophy or even family that he has to thank. It’s the most unlikely saviour of all: gaming.