Erica Barnes said she only wore the hazel-hued lenses for one day, according to local reports. But that was long enough to scratch the surface of her right eye and spur an infection that could leave behind a blinding scar.
"Once that protective barrier is defeated, bacteria can just flow in," said Dr. Roy Chuck, professor and chair of ophthalmology at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. "You can treat the infection. But part of healing is making a scar, and that can block vision."
It could take up to six months for doctors to know whether Barnes will need a cornea transplant to restore vision in her right eye. But while she waits, the teen tolerates excruciating pain.
"The density of nerves on the surface of the eye is higher than almost any other place on the body," said Chuck. A small scratch can feel like 1,000 toothaches. And a big scratch, Chuck said he could "only imagine what it would be like for a 14-year-old."
Federal law prohibits the sale of contacts, even for cosmetic purposes, without a prescription. But beauty shops on the street and online sell them cheap, without a proper fitting or instructions on how to use them.
"Teens and young adults are bypassing doctors to get these lenses. And when you do that, you run the risk of not having the right fit," Chuck said.
The wrong fit makes lenses more likely to scratch the eye. Add in a teen who doesn't understand the importance of clean lenses and hands, and the infection risk soars.
Chuck said more and more teens are using contact lenses to get celebrity looks. Lady Gaga's doe-eyed look in the music video for "Bad Romance" inspired a how-to YouTube video promoting eye-enlarging circle lenses. The video has more than 22 million hits. And Rihanna is one of many celebs sporting the golden gaze that Barnes was going for.
"It's out of control," said Chuck. "You can get these things on any corner."
If Barnes's cornea becomes too scarred as it heals from the infection, doctors will transplant a healthy cornea from an organ donor into her eye. After that, it could still take up to 18 months for her vision to go back to normal.