'I looked into the light. I saw it go out. I was blind': Businessman Derek Snell shares remarkable journey after losing sight in surgery
A businessman who lost his sight 19 years ago following complications during surgery to improve it, speaks to Dan Russell about his experiences.
ACCORDING to his consultant, the sequence of events which led to Derek Snell going totally blind happens to one in five million.
Fifteen years after losing the sight in his right eye following an operation, Derek's left eye stopped working on November 24, 1993 – apparently because of an operating theatre infection.
He explained: "There is a history of cataracts in my family, my father Walter was a professional gardener and he had his taken off when he was 24-years-old, he had to wear thick glasses but he could still see. In 1977 it got to the point where I needed to have my cataracts removed.
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"I was on the NHS waiting list for nine months before I decided with my wife, Joyce, that I would go private.
"I was worried that if I didn't I would lose my life because I couldn't see to cross the road with confidence on my own.
"I was taken in to a private hospital on November 5, 1977, and had the operation on my left eye which is exactly what I wanted.
"My right eye was the better of the two but three months later in February 1978 I was asked to come in again which I did.
"It was a bit of a surprise that only three months later they thought I needed my other eye doing but I accepted this and went through with it."
However, Derek says the cataract was not at the correct stage to be operated on, and that all he could see when he came out of surgery was blood.
Derek, of Cleethorpes, returned home, hoping his vision would clear up but had to go to Moorfields Eye Hospital in London eight days later to see a specialist.
He underwent a five hour operation to try to repair the damage, although it was unsuccessful.
He added: "Three weeks later I was asked to go back and they removed the bandages.
"One of the specialists turned out to be the same one that boxer Frank Bruno used, and he said that he was sorry but there was nothing more that could be done.
"I just felt very upset because it could have all been avoided.
"I had a wife, a business, two children and a mortgage to pay so I just got on with life.
"Only three people in the world knew I was blind in one eye and they were my wife, myself and my brother.
"My children Carole Ann Snell and Krista Snell were only five and eight years old at the time and I didn't want to tell them.
"My secretary at work was with me for ten years and came into my office daily and never realised."
Derek learned to live with one functioning eye with very few people realising, but 16 years later his other eye started to cause him trouble again.
He said: "I went back to Sheffield but was referred to Manchester where I saw a specialist and had to go through another operation to repair a detached retina.
"About four or five days later I started getting a lot of problems, including a temperature, and went to Grimsby Hospital.
"I was given some tablets but they didn't work and I was sent back to Manchester.
"When I got there they realised something was very wrong.
"I was given some eye drops every half an hour for seven days.
"But on November 23, 1993, I was asked to put my head on a platform and look into a shining light.
"As I looked into the light, I saw it go out and from that point I was totally blind."
Derek says the operating equipment was carrying an infection, and he believes it was the infection that caused his blindness.
He said: "My wife and I did a lot of crying while I was in hospital.
"During the 46 days I was in hospital, I had three further operations.
"It was a very sad time and anyone's worst nightmare.
"Although this had happened the staff there were brilliant and every time I heard my wife's footsteps I would sit up in bed and start smiling because I knew she was coming.
"I owned my own business called Snell Signs and Supplies Ltd which I set up in 1974.
"I used to say that I could run my business with my eyes closed and that is exactly what I did for eight years until December 2001 when I retired.
"I was the only professional blind sign maker in the country.
"What happened to me I have been told happens to one in five million.
"Since then the past 19 years have been frustrating due to me no longer being able to do things I once could.
"Over the years there has been five things stopping me from doing what PC David Rathband did – the police officer that committed suicide after being shot and blinded by gunman Raoul Moat.
"They are my wife stopping me from thinking that way, my sense of humour as well as my interests, determination and memory.
"I can remember an awful lot including all 26 faces of my class mates from Caistor Grammar School."
Since becoming blind, Derek and his wife have been determined to live their lives together positively, including following Grimsby Town on the radio.
However, it has not always been easy.
Derek added: "Shortly after becoming blind I called 28 different phone numbers trying to find help but unfortunately there was not a lot out there, especially in our area.
"For a while I laid low and didn't really do much but eventually I started going out again and I joined the National Federation Of The Blind.
"I am now the chairman of the central branch, which is the biggest in the country.
"I am also involved in Soundscene, the talking newspaper, where I am a committee member.
"I take a lot of tapes but also verbally contribute.
"One of the things that I really enjoy is jazz music and I also promote a concert every July at Caistor church.
"Some people don't think it is a big deal being blind because we always appear to be happy.
"We try to get on with our lives but sometimes we get really low and our quality of life is poor.
"About 95 per cent of people that I come across in North East Lincolnshire have no awareness or empathy for blind people.
"I have found that in our area blind people don't go out that much and I do understand why.
"I often get people come up to me and say hello and unfortunately I don't know who they are talking to or who they are.
"Not everyone has a distinctive voice and I find that sometimes people get offended when I don't recognise them.
"I have had people make me try to guess who they are which for me is very frustrating and is like showing a red rag to a bull.
"Being blind is not a game.
"We have been going to events where people we know, who live a few minutes away, have also been going and because Joyce hasn't known where the venue is we have had people draw us a detailed map but because she is driving and I obviously can't see, it is useless.
"We are not spongers but a lift would have been nice or even letting us follow them when they went.
"It is upsetting to know that someone has gone to the same place as us who lives close and knows we are going also but don't offer to help. People need to understand what it is like.
"Small things can really help, like moving obstacles in the street for us makes all the difference.
"I do try to make fun of my blindness but sometimes it can be very distressing.
"When I was sighted I used to open the conversation with people but I can no longer do that because I don't know they are there.
"Often I am sitting in silence on my own surrounded by people when my wife isn't there.
"I think that 50 per cent of the trouble with blindness is being blind and the other 50 per cent is how sighted people deal with you.
"I wouldn't be here myself if it wasn't for Joyce.
"She has had 19 years of me asking what is in my hand, cutting up my food and selecting what I should wear as well as reading all my post to me.
"I don't want sympathy just some consideration."
Joyce added: "I think people do need to have a bit more empathy towards the blind.
"One of the things I hate is when people try to make Derek guess who he is talking to.
"There are always obstacles in the streets that we have to avoid which shouldn't really be there.
"Things like cars parked on the path and wheelie bins left out can be a real hazard.
"I think because we are happy and a lot of people know us they forget that Derek is blind.
"If I could change anything it would be for people to be a little more helpful and considerate to the blind."