Catt Gallinger, a 24-year-old from Ottawa, got a new tattoo this month, and it could cost her an eye. The former pet nutritionist received a sclera tattoo, a body modification procedure that involves tattooing the eyeball, and has lost partial vision as a result. There’s a possibility she could end up losing her eye altogether.
Gallinger is now telling her story in an effort to spread the word about the dangers of sclera tattoos. In a series of posts and videos shared on Facebook, she is tracking her recovery, her treatment and the medications she has been prescribed. She also shot a Facebook Live video to answer questions from viewers and followers.
Gallinger is a body modification enthusiast, who’s covered in tattoos and has had her tongue surgically split. The sclera tattoo just seemed like the next logical step in her exploration.
“I have a lot of friends who have had it done and it worked for them,” she tells Global News. “I’m not jumping on the bandwagon or anything, but body modification is part of my life. I had been thinking about doing it for a while.”
Unfortunately, she didn’t do her homework before deciding to have it done by an unqualified professional on Sept. 5. She says that the person who did it asked her repeatedly one night if she would allow him until she “gave in.” It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later, upon learning that a number of other people had received botched sclera tattoos by the same person, that she realized she had made a bad judgment call.
“During the first two weeks, he kept telling me it was fine, but I had a feeling that it wasn’t normal,” she says. “Everyone I know who had this done healed within a week. I reached out to other artists around the world and they agreed on what he had done wrong, and made me aware of how high-risk my situation was.”
She went to see a doctor who immediately referred her to a specialist. Right now, she says, doctors are working as quickly as they can to help stop some of the damage and save her eye. But removal of her eye still isn’t officially off the table.
“The reason they’d remove my eye is because once the ink moves to the retina, it will cause nerve damage. But next week we’ll be discussing surgical options to have the excess ink taken out. As far as I’m being told right now, I will be able to keep my eye.”
It was deduced that the artist had made a series of mistakes, including over-injecting her eye, failing to dilute the ink with saline, using a needle that was too big and going too deep into the eye. In addition, she wasn’t asked to sign a waiver nor was she warned of the risks. Gallinger says that she’ll be pressing charges of criminal negligence.
“Even the creator [of this tattoo procedure] says the problem is that the people who are doing this and causing all this damage have no education on the body. The only people who should be doing this are basically surgeons or doctors as a cosmetic procedure, because it’s too high-risk.”
Right now, she says, her vision in her right eye is blurry and she sees double.
“It will never fully recover. I’ll need at least glasses for the rest of my life, and if the ink solidifies there’s a possibility it could get worse.”
Sclera tattoos are a relatively new form of body modification, and doctors are strongly opposed to them.
“It’s not safe,” says Dr. Setareh Ziai, assistant professor of ophthamology at the University of Ottawa Eye Institute. “The ink is going under the mucus membrane tissue that lines the eyeball and it can escape. Because the circulation in that area of the body is high, you could potentially have toxic ink migrating throughout your body. And if it gets in your eye, you will go blind.”
Even worse, unlike a body tattoo, these are completely permanent.
“You can’t laser it away like you can on your skin. No physician in their right mind would ever recommend this to anyone.”
That said, tattooing the eye is a procedure doctors carry out for therapeutic purposes.
“If a patient has an eye that’s opacified [when the cornea looks clouded over], I’ll use tattoo ink to improve the appearance, or in the case of a defective iris that allows too much light in the eye, I’ll use it to get rid of the glare,” Ziai says. “But we tattoo the cornea, which is transparent and avascular, so there’s less risk of ink migration, and the amount we use is so minimal.”
She also points out that doctors get their ink from reputable dealers and they have to uphold stringent regulations regarding sterility.
Gallinger isn’t sure what the future of her vision will look like since sclera tattoos are new and their long-term effects are unknown.
“Not enough people have had them for more than 10 years to be able to say how bad it could get in the future,” she says. “At this rate, I’ll be looking at getting an eye test every few months, maybe every year, for the rest of my life to make sure it’s not getting worse.”