Cataracts and Amateur Astronomy

by Kathy and Jerry Oltion

Featured in the September 2014 issue of Sky & Telescope Magazine

Kathy's retroilluminated eye
We had been enjoying amateur astronomy for about seven years when Kathy noticed something unusual happening: her right eye wasn't working very well. It gave her a lot of flare around bright objects, and multiple images. She switched to her left eye for observing, but when she went to her optometrist she learned that she was developing cataracts.

That little bombshell led to several years of trials and tribulations, which we detailed in an article that was published in the September, 2014 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine.

In short, the surgery to replace Kathy's cloudy lenses left her with wrinkles in the lens capsules, wrinkles that caused horrendous diffraction spikes around every bright object she looked at. Worse, neither her surgeon nor her optometrist would believe that the wrinkles were the cause of the problem, apparently because the wrinkles are very common but people don't usually complain about difraction.

The photo to the left shows the wrinkle in one of Kathy's lens capsules. (It's that vertical streak just to the right of center, caused by the wires called haptics that hold the artificial lens in place [the dotted lines].) You wouldn't want a diffraction-causing artifact like that in front of your telescope; why would you want it between your eyepiece and your retina? Short answer: you don't.

The good news is that Kathy's eyes could be repaired, but we went on a merry chase for nearly four years before we found the solution to the problem. After it was all over we decided to write an article about her experience, hoping that it would help other people facing the same thing. We sent it to Sky & Telescope and they published it, but that version of the article suffered from space restrictions and it's hard to find nowadays, so we offer here the original, uncut article for anyone who might be interested.

It's in PDF format, and you can download it here:

Click here to download the PDF article.

As always when discussing medical concerns, your situation will differ from ours. Your needs and your risk of complications may differ. Don’t take this article as a prescription for what everyone should do; rather use it as a guide for discussing frankly with your surgeon what you need in your particular case. There are medical constraints to what’s possible and safe, but there are also optical constraints to what’s acceptable for amateur astronomy. Make sure both you and your surgeon understand what you want, why you want it, and how to achieve as much of it as medically possible. If you go into cataract surgery informed, you stand a much better chance of coming out of it happy.

How to contact us

email graphicWe'd love to hear from people who are curious about Kathy's experience. For obvious reasons we can't provide medical advice beyond the exhortation to discuss your needs and concerns with your doctors before you have cataract surgery. But if you want to discuss any of this with us, please feel free to email us at the address on the right. (Sorry you can't click on it or copy and paste it; it's a graphic file to thwart spambots that search the internet for addresses to send junk mail to.) We have no idea how much mail this idea will generate, so we can't guarantee a response, but we'll do our best to answer everyone who writes with a genuine question or comment about Kathy's experience with cataracts.