Earlier today (technically, yesterday, since it's after midnight) I broke two cardinal rules of soapmaking. I was distracted, and I wasn't wearing eye protection. I had to leave the house at 1:00, and it was 12:45. I had already mixed up all the oils before having lunch, so I only had to mix up the lye solution, add it to the oils, mix, and pour. That didn't sound like such a big challenge for 15 minutes, right?
Unfortunately, I chose a fragrance that tends to make the soap seize, meaning it turns the soap into mashed potatoes, and you're supposed to pour when it's the consistency of a runny pudding. And instead of pouring into my long, rectangular molds, I was pouring into Pringles cans, which meant I had a pretty small target. The soap was getting thicker by the second and coming out in clumps and plopping all over the edges of the cans, so I leaned over to see better, and PLOP! SPLASH! The mixture was in my left eye!
I screamed and ran straight to the sink and stuck my head under the faucet. I couldn't hold it there for very long, because it's just kind of weird to hold your eye under running water. I have a room out in the barn where I make soap, and I was alone, so I realized I needed to get help, which was in the house. Adrenaline is an amazing thing. I have never run so fast, and if I was winded, I didn't even notice. I got into the house and was screaming to my son Jonathan (the only person home) that I got lye in my eye. I tried to stick my eye under the kitchen sink, but it wasn't working as well. I got a syringe (no needle) and laid down on the guest room bed and tried to squirt water in my eye, but it was not easy. It was excruciating when I tried to pull my upper lid up and squirt water there. I went to my laptop, which was on the dining room table and googled, "soapmaking lye eyes," and immediately saw an article written by a woman whose toddler spilled 2/3 gallon of 40% lye solution over his entire body. I hadn't read much when I looked across the dining room table and out the window. My beautiful pond was blurry, and my distance vision has always been better than 20/20. That's when it clicked. I could be blind in that eye if I didn't get all the lye out, and I told Jonathan that we needed to go to the ER.
Information on lye safety always says to flush the eye for 15 or 20 minutes and get medical attention. I never quite understood why you did both. Well, now I know. Both are necessary! As we were driving to the hospital, I was doing the math ... 12.75 ounces of lye + 26 ounces of goat milk + 88 ounces of oil = 1% lye. That's not so bad. I probably don't need to go to the hospital. (My husband corrected my math this evening -- that's 10% lye!) Well, as Jonathan drove, it started to feel like there was something in my eye, so while one side of my brain said 1% lye wasn't a big deal, the other side disagreed, and luckily I didn't tell Jonathan to turn around and go home.
When we got to the hospital, another patient was at the triage window, but I piped up and said, "Excuse me, I have lye in my eye - L - Y - E - lye." Someone immediately said, "Through here," and took me straight to a room. Within a couple minutes, a nurse had asked me about drug allergies and put a drop of something in my eye to numb it. She then placed a giant contact-lens-looking thing in my eye, tucked under the upper and lower lids. There was a tube attached to the middle of it, and the other end of the tube was connected to a liter of fluid. The nurse informed me that they would need to flush the entire liter through my eye. If this sounds painful, well, it was. I was wrapping my ankles around each other, squeezing my hands together, pressing my shoulders in the bed, and telling myself to relax. I knew I was hyperventilating, because my hands were tingly, and I was dizzy. The numbing drops would only last for about 200-300 ccs, and then I'd need more numbing medication, so we had to remove the lens thingy, add another stingy drop, and put the lens thingy back in and start over again. I told the nurse, "The last time I had this much fun, I got a cute baby at the end."
She laughed and said, "This time you're just getting a bill." She was very nice. She kept telling me I was doing a great job and was really tough. She even looked at Jonathan and said, "Your mom is really tough." Yeah, I thought, she probably tells that to all her patients, but it sounded good to me at the time.
The doctor came in after the eye was flushed and asked me what happened. When I explained to him that the lye was already mixed up and I was pouring it, he said, "So, really it's just like you got soap in your eye."
"No." I took a deep breath. "Let me explain to you how soapmaking works." Then I proceeded to explain the whole process and said at the end, so it's probably about 1% lye -- which he did NOT correct! He just said, "Well, it's still a pretty caustic substance."
I can't even begin to tell you all the things they did to me after the eye was flushed. I lost count of the different drops they put in it for all the different examinations, but the vision in my left eye was not good. At the end of the exam, the doctor said that there was "significant damage" and he wanted to call an ophthalmologist.
I went from the ER to the ophthalmologist's office, which was half an hour away. I laid down the car seat and put on sunglasses, which didn't help, so I put a towel over my head. They had dilated my eye, so light increased my agony. Jonathan asked if it was okay to drive 75, and I said, "No. I'm not dieing. It doesn't really matter how fast you get there."
At the ophthalmologist's office, they repeated a few of the exams. The doctor dictated a lot of incomprehensible non-English words to his assistant, which sounded really bad. I asked, "So, I have a chemical burn on my cornea?"
"Yes." He told me about a couple different options and said the best one was to put a contact lens in my eye to protect it from my eyelid. I have to laugh because my mother always said, "Never say never!" Well, I really figured it would be safe for me to say that I'll never wear contact lenses, but apparently not. I am sitting here with a contact lens in my left eye. He was right -- it feels weird, but it feels much better than my eyelid scratching my eyeball every time I blink. That was horribly painful.
I have antibiotic drops for my eye, as well as drops that he described as "like ibuprofen drops," which are for pain and swelling. I'm also taking extra-strength Tylenol, which I'm surprised seems to help. I know when it wears off after about six hours. It also helps with the headache that's probably just a result of stress.
So, I learned some really valuable lessons today! After six years of soapmaking, I had become much too relaxed about the fact that I am working with a caustic substance that can do serious damage. I get splatters on my skin every now and then, and it's not a big deal. It burns, I rinse the skin, put vinegar on it, which neutralizes any lye that didn't get rinsed off, and that's the end of it. Getting it in your eyes is a very big deal. (Of course, spilling a lot of it on your skin would be a very big deal too.) The doctor said my eye will probably heal, but we'll know more when I go in on Friday to have the contact lens removed.
If you're a soaper or if you ever want to make soap in the future, PLEASE wear eye protection! I feel unbelievably stupid. As the ER doctor said, no one expects to get in a car accident, but we wear our seat belt just in case. Like I tell my children, they're called "accidents" because we don't do them on purpose!
Both doctors said that I averted a lot of damage by flushing my eye immediately. So, if you do get lye or a lye solution in your eye, irrigate it as much as you possibly can, then head straight to the ER! But if you're wearing your eye protection, the odds of getting lye in your eyes is pretty slim. My entire ordeal could have been avoided if only I had been wearing goggles.
And the really weird twist to the story is that I was supposed to teach a soapmaking class last night at a local community college. Obviously, the class was canceled. I'll certainly have a lot more emphasis on safety when that class is rescheduled!