Kirk Pengilly, of INXS fame, was just 29 when he came within millimetres of losing his sight to acute angle closure glaucoma. An integral member of the band, playing guitar, saxophone, and providing backing vocals, he had no knowledge of glaucoma. Although he’d had regular eye examinations, there had been no signs detected or symptoms to indicate that he was at risk of developing the disease.
Now an ambassador for Glaucoma Australia, Kirk is helping create a greater awareness of the condition for all Australians.
“I was on tour with INXS, up the east coast of Australia, when I started seeing ‘foggy halos’ around street lights,” says Kirk. “That was back in 1987 and I was 29. The halos were the only signs of anything going wrong and they were noticeable late in the evenings, usually after our performances.”
The morning after the final concert of the tour in Darwin, Kirk woke up with excruciating pain in his eyes.
“I couldn’t open my eyes. It was pretty frightening because I didn’t know what was happening, so we called a doctor to the hotel. He was unable to diagnose what was going on and he gave me painkillers.”
Fortunately, the tour had come to an end and the band returned to Sydney.
“We flew back straight away, and I went to see my optometrist. She diagnosed acute angle closure glaucoma and fast-tracked me to see an ophthalmologist,” Kirk said.
That ophthalmologist turned out to be none other than Professor Ivan Goldberg AM, who co-founded Glaucoma Australia in 1986 and has been integral to the organisation’s growth and development ever since. Prof Goldberg was awarded the title of ‘Life Governor’ of Glaucoma Australia in 2018, recognising his significant contribution.
Kirk said the diagnosis came as a complete shock to him. He had never heard of glaucoma, let alone acute angle closure glaucoma, which is relatively rare – 90% of people with glaucoma have primary open angle, which has strong genetic links.
“Back in the 80s, glaucoma was considered an ‘old persons’ disease’, so I was an unlikely suspect. I was extremely fortunate to have an optometrist and ophthalmologist who treated me with urgency and made a quick diagnosis. I went very close to going blind,” he said.
Pioneering Laser Surgery
Kirk was initially treated with drops to relieve the pressure and soon after, he underwent laser surgery on both eyes. Despite being early days for this procedure, it was entirely successful, and no further surgery or medications have been needed.
As a result, Kirk was able to return to touring and get on with his life. As well as being one of the founding members of INXS, he has written, produced and performed on numerous other records and is the INXS archivist, logging daily entries in diaries that date back to the beginning of the band’s existence.
Today Kirk has a daughter, who is an actor, and he is married to seven times women's world champion professional surfer, Layne Beachley AO, a partnership which encourages the healthy lifestyle recommended for great eye health.
“Certainly, looking after my health is something that I do much more now than I used to back in the old days, but mainly this consists of eating right, exercising regularly and sleep is obviously important as well. So just maintaining a balance, keeping fit and watching what I eat,” he says.
Having worn glasses since he was a little kid, he says eye tests have always been part of life, however since being diagnosed with glaucoma they have become a priority.
“I believe people need to have their eyes checked regularly, and it’s just as important as going to the dentist or for check-ups with your GP,” he said.
With this thought in mind, Kirk was quick to agree to becoming an ambassador for Glaucoma Australia when CEO Annie Gibbins approached him in mid-2019.
Annie Gibbins said Kirk’s personal experience with glaucoma combined with his recognition as an Australian music legend put him in the perfect position to become an influential ambassador for Glaucoma Australia.
“Glaucoma Australia’s mission to eliminate glaucoma blindness focuses strongly on risk awareness, early intervention, and appointment and treatment adherence. This means we need to target our key message to a younger demographic than we did historically – primarily, people aged 40+ who are often difficult to engage but essential to reach,” she said.
“Kirk’s high profile and personal experience will resonate powerfully with this audience. The call to action is simple: ‘if you value your sight and are at risk, go and get tested’.
“He has demonstrated that his glaucoma diagnosis and management has not held him back in life and this makes him a fantastic ambassador,” added Annie.
For Kirk, his role with Glaucoma Australia is all about getting people into optometry practices for an eye test.
“When I got glaucoma it really hit home how important sight was to me and obviously to everyone. It was a real wake up call for me as I came within a millimetre of losing my eyesight. As a result, I’m certainly more aware of my eyes, my eye health and the importance of looking after my sight,” said Kirk.
He added, “I feel the need to encourage people to be aware of eye health and the importance of getting their eyes checked regularly. Most eye disease is preventable if you can get to it early so I’m keen to encourage ‘people at risk’ to get their eyes checked regularly.”
Acute Angle Closure Glaucoma
Written by Professor Ivan Goldberg
Angle closure glaucoma is caused by crowding of the front part of the eye. The words ‘angle closure’ refer to blockage of the fluid outflow pathways of the eye by the coloured iris tissue. This causes eye pressures to rise, which threatens the optic nerve at the back of the eye, thereby threatening vision. Blockage is most commonly gradual, although it can be intermittent or sudden, as was the case for Kirk Pengilly. Treatment is to re-open the drainage angle and to control eye pressures, thereby safe-guarding sight. Laser techniques can achieve this with the help of medications, but sometimes surgery becomes necessary. Although angle-closure glaucomas are less common than open-angle varieties, globally, they cause as much blindness and this highlights the importance of detecting them and treating them effectively.
Onset, Signs and Symptoms
As with open-angle glaucoma, most angle-closure patients experience no warning signs. Those with intermittent closure might see coloured rings around lights at night and/or experience an ache in and around the eye or eyes, which self-resolves. In the much rarer full-blown sudden attack, the person usually becomes very ill, with vomiting, and severe eye and head pain, along with very blurry vision.
Laser surgery has revolutionised the treatment of angle-closure glaucoma, which used to require an operation using scissors to open the wall of the eye.
Today we use lasers to re-open the drainage angle by making a small opening through the outer part of the coloured iris tissue. This creates a by-pass between the chambers in the front part of the eye, allowing the iris tissue to fall back away from the outflow drain, which unblocks it and normalises the eye pressure. This can be achieved in just a few minutes in an ophthalmologist’s rooms or in an outpatient clinic.
Our increased understanding of the mechanisms in the eye that lead to angle-closure, along with much better tools to make the precise diagnosis, and much safer and more effective treatments to achieve treatment targets, have changed the vision results for millions of patients world-wide. Kirk is one of these happy outcomes – saving his sight enabled him to continue his life without the constraints that visual disability could otherwise have forced on him.