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Violinist and Faneuil Hall stalwart Vivian Luo sees things differently now

The well-known busker contracted a rare eye infection this year that left her partially blind. She now wears ski goggles to protect from further damage.Sean Sweeney

For years, Vivian Luo has been a stalwart presence outside of Faneuil Hall, immediately identifiable by the pop covers that flow from her transparent electric violin.

Luo, also known as “violinviiv,” left a six-figure job in the summer of 2017 to pursue music full time. “I love street performing — there’s a certain magic to it,” Luo, 30, said in an interview. “There’s something nice about just being a human being and being on the streets, and anyone can enjoy the music and partake in it.”

But earlier this year, performing was put on hold when the Malden resident contracted Acanthamoeba keratitis, or AK, a rare eye infection that typically affects contact lens wearers and can result in permanent vision loss. The infection impacted just her right eye, she added, which to this day can only see light, dark, and occasional color.


Now, her act has an added accessory — ski goggles, which prevent further irritation or damage to the eye. Most listeners, Luo observed, think they’re “just part of the costume.”

The Globe caught up with Luo to ask about her diagnosis, treatment, and recent return to busking.

Q. When did you know something was wrong?

A. I had this weird feeling in my eye from these new contacts. I went to see the eye doctor, and he was like, “It looks like a little corneal abrasion, nothing out of the ordinary.” Within a week it got so bad he [said], “You should probably go to Mass Eye and Ear.”

Q. How did they arrive at the diagnosis?

A. Once we did the scrape and the imaging, they were 100 percent sure that it was Acanthamoeba keratitis. I just remember being in so much pain and so light-sensitive. I couldn’t leave the house, unless I was wearing ski goggles, and that was only for necessary runs. I was definitely not performing the first couple months. It was shocking. There was a little bit of “How and why did this happen?” But then you realize you’re not going to get clear answers [with] something like this. You can only look at: This is the situation, this is how we go forward.


Q. What does treatment look like?

A. Treatment is primarily eye drops. I also did a month of these oral pills called miltefosine, or Impavido. They’re very expensive — it’s the one thing my insurance didn’t cover. Luckily, we reached out to the CEO of the company, and he ended up donating the medicine, and I am 1,000 percent grateful. All I know is I’m much more functional than two months ago.

Q. What did performing look like when you first returned?

A. I was very careful. I think I started two weeks after I started the Impavido, and I would only go for two hours at a time, max. I would go to Davis Square or Assembly Row, and it was only if I felt up to it. There were many days — I’d say five days out of seven — where I was just like, “There’s absolutely no way I’m leaving the house.”

Everything in my life just has a slightly slower pace now, but in a very good way. I realized, I think it’s trying to teach me something. I’ve always been too type A. Now I have to make sure I have my ice pack. I need to make sure I have my drops. I need to slowly get these things done, but efficiently. Health first.


Q. Do you get questions about the goggles?

A. At least once a day. Sometimes I’m like, “I’m just wearing them for fun.” A lot of people were overly concerned — “Are you ever going to get sight again?” At this point, I’m in no pain, so compared to two, three months ago, even if I don’t have my sight back, I’m perfectly happy.

Q. How has AK affected your playing?

A. Sometimes when I’m wearing my ski goggles, I close both eyes. I actually play best when my eyes are closed, because then you’re 100 percent connected to your sound, to your music. I think my tone quality is better.

It’s a little different for street performing because I like interacting with my audience, so I generally keep my eyes open. I’ve given up contacts for life. But when I street perform, I don’t wear my glasses. Luckily no one’s attacked me; no one’s stolen my bucket.

Q. What was it like not knowing if you would ever play again due to the pain?

A. When it was really that much light sensitivity and pain, I wasn’t even worried about working; I was just concerned about the pain going away. I was like, “I just need to figure out how to get through this day, this hour.” I feel like my life has a new normal now, and the new normal is functioning with one eye. I’ve been lucky to figure out a way to make it work.


Interview was edited and condensed.

Dana Gerber can be reached at dana.gerber@globe.com