Melbourne rapper/hip hop artist 360 hasn’t let the degenerative eye condition keratoconus get in the way of life. In fact, reduced vision ironically diverted his path from a career in sport as a talented basketballer to a successful rapper.
Matt Colwell, as he is otherwise known, is one of up to 50,000 Aussies with keratoconus, a thinning of the central zone of the cornea, the transparent layer over the front of the eye. As it progresses, normal eye pressure causes the round shape of the cornea to distort and a cone-like bulge develops, resulting in significant visual impairment.
The disease has left 360 legally blind in his right eye and he has undergone two procedures to stop the condition worsening. They include a corneal transplant in the right eye and a relatively new procedure in the other, a transplant alternative called corneal collagen cross-linking where vitamin B2 drops are placed on the eye before it is exposed to UV light to help stop disease progression. A Medicare rebate will become available from May for this procedure.
360 refuses to let his vision loss affect his attitude, instead adopting an optimistic outlook and learning from and embracing the experience by singing about it. He turned something negative -a deteriorating vision condition and giving up his dream of playing professional basketball - into a positive – focusing his energy on developing a promising music career.
“I talk about it in numerous songs and in 'Miracle in a costume' I really go in depth about the whole experience,” 360 said. “One of the lyrics is ‘Going half blind made me see more clearly’ which is something I truly believe.
“At the time I was devastated and thought I had nothing else to live for but looking back on it now, I realise it was the best thing to happen to me because it forced me to focus on my music.”
Matt told his story to Good vision for life to create awareness about keratoconus and promote organ donation.
Keratoconus usually begins in the teenage years, and is more aggressive when diagnosed in adolescence, but it can also start in childhood or up to about age 30. While it does not cause blindness, it can lead to disabling vision loss.
360 announced on Facebook in 2012 that he had the condition and had undergone a corneal transplant about six years earlier. He posted this picture on his Facebook showing the stitches.
About 1,700 Australians have corneal transplants every year
Kerataconus is one of the most common reasons for corneal transplants.
As a teenager growing up in the Melbourne suburb of Ringwood, 360 was a skilled basketballer and dreamed of playing professionally.
“My lifelong goal as a kid was to play college basketball in the US. I managed to play in the Victorian Basketball League and the Australian Basketball Association but that's as far as I got,” he told GVFL.
“Throughout my school years my vision was perfect but when I was about 18 I was noticing a lot of ghosting around lights. It wasn't anything major, I just noticed that when I looked at lights in the distance they had this glow around them (ghosting). It wasn't anything crazy but it was noticeable.
“I went to an optometrist straight away. It wasn't severe when I was first diagnosed but over a matter of months my vision rapidly got worse and it became severe in a short amount of time.
“I tried glasses but they didn't help so I ended up wearing hard contact lenses but they were uncomfortable and although this really helped my vision, the irritation caused redness and itching to the point I preferred not to wear them.”
Within 10 months, the disease had become so severe that his specialist suggested a corneal graft was needed as soon as possible.
“I never knew something as incredible as a corneal transplant was possible. It still blows my mind today that something so tiny can be sewn onto your eye,” he said.
The transplant prevented the disease from progressing.
“After they removed all the stitching from my eye, unfortunately my vision was terrible,” Matt said. “While a contact lens helped, it was extremely vulnerable to being knocked out. A simple tap on the face and the lens would detach from my cornea and end up stuck directly on the top or bottom of my eye behind the eyelid, which was super annoying because it was hard to fish out so it was connected to my cornea again.
“While the lens helped, it didn't correct my vision perfectly so it affected my depth perception which really hindered me on the court. It was unfortunate but I lost my love for the sport because of this.”
Matt later underwent cross-linking in his left eye which is slowing progression of the disease. He wears special contact lenses called rigid gas permeable lenses which help vision in his right eye.
“My vision is a lot better with the lens in my right eye but it's still not great. I can't drive at night even with my contact lenses in. I just can't see the lines or read signs properly. To be honest it doesn't bother me anymore. I could be way worse off! Probably my best trait is that I always see the positive in any negative situation I go through.
“It can be very hard to tell at the time but there are positives that can come from every negative situation. I'm pretty confident that in 10 years humans will be able to buy bionic eyes or something like that – I’d definitely do that!
“No matter what you're going through, try and see the positives that can come from it. With my basketball and my vision forcing me to focus on music, at the time it shattered my world, but looking back, it was the best thing that's happened to me or I wouldn't be where I am today. Be grateful for what you have because it could always be worse.”
360 is now a registered organ donor and encourages others to do so and to opt in on their driver’s license.
“It's so important. I never thought anything of it until I had my corneal graft but now I understand how important it really is,” he said. “You can literally save lives if you donate your organs. It's a big deal that people often don't take into account until they need a transplant themselves.”
In March this year, 360 finished a successful Australian tour. His new album, Vintage Modern, follows his second album Falling & Flying. Ironically his debut album in 2008, two years after his transplant, was entitled What You See is What You Get.
Read more about keratoconus, including its causes, risk factors, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and where to get help here.
Register for organ and tissue donation including corneal donation here.