The memories are fresh and stark: my mother brings me to the hospital. I am five. She has kindly told me all that she can tell me–that Dr. S is going to fix my eye. He is going to put me to sleep and fix my eye, because my left eye rolls around a bit. I have strabismus or wandering eye. My mother didn’t use the word surgery. But I certainly didn’t know what to expect–other than I would miss some school. I was in Kindergarten and I didn’t know what it would feel like to be blind.
I think it was a Sunday when I was admitted at the hospital. I do remember that my mother was at one end of the room while this big nurse (I’m a nurse, but this woman’s touch felt cold and rough) did whatever she had to do to admit me. I had to take off my clothes and pee in a cup and she probably drew my blood. I just remember wishing it would stop. In the 1950s, I don’t think PATIENT EDUCATION was high on the list.
Finally that part was over and my mother could hug me and hold my hand again. We went up in the elevator to the children’s wing where I would have the bed by the door in a two bed room. I’m sure they put me in a hospital gown right away and put me in bed. NICE AND TIDY. And I probably had some clear liquids on a tray, if they fed me at all. My mother sat in a chair beside my bed. I did have a roommate, an older girl. I think she had had appendicitis, but she was very close to being discharged, so she never spent one minute with me. Not one. Eventually my mom kissed me and said she had to go home. She always had to go home.
Did I cry? I can’t remember. Then I slept. Monday was surgery day and this is what happened:
- My mother could not be with me. Some ancient hospital policy.
- I woke up hungry and remembered Mom had put some cough drops in the top drawer of this little bedside table.
- I leaned way over, got that drawer open and got me a cough drop.
- Moments later a nurse came in with a cart and made me move from the bed to that cart. I don’t remember what she said to me. Probably to be brave. I love how people tell you that, when you have NO IDEA what is about to happen. You are supposed to be brave about the scary future.
- Now I’m being pushed down the hallway, never knowing that my mother is peeking at me from around the corner. She is watching me, her brave girl, probably tearing up and praying. Again what a stupid hospital rule.
- Suddenly the nurse hears me crunch the cough drop. ARE YOU EATING SOMETHING? YES, I say, YOU DIDN’T GIVE ME ANY BREAKFAST. And she hurries into a room, grabs one of those scratchy gauze squares and says SPIT IT OUT! Again, PATIENT TEACHING. Five-year-olds are not totally dumb. And her you-know-what is on the line if a patient, me, is supposed to be NPO (translation: (nil per os) nothing by mouth.
- And the next step hasn’t changed much. I don’t remember the two doors to the OR swinging open for me, but they probably did. And then there are all these people standing there with masks on. Again, PATIENT TEACHING, PEOPLE.
- I want to remember that Dr. S waved or said hello or pulled off his mask and called me “Beth.” I think that happened. But though I don’t truly remember that, I do absolutely remember what happened next.
- Ether. They put some metal thing over my nose and mouth that had an awful strong smell to it. Later, I would decide it looked like a colander used to drain vegetables. The picture here isn’t quite what I remember. But it had holes in it and they told me to take deep breaths.
- I am sure I remember hearing bells ringing, though I can’t find proof of that in the literature. Ether supposedly makes you vomit, but I don’t remember that. Here is what I do remember and my mother confirmed it. When I was coming out of the anesthesia, I was probably in recovery and they must have let my mother in this time. Because I kept trying to tear the bandages from my face and talking on and on about THE GREEN HAT. For a few nights I had nightmares about that green hat and couldn’t understand why my mother wasn’t doing something about it.
- ORIGIN of the GREEN HAT: It was a typical winter head cover of the 1950s that my mother had kindly bought me. It was green knit material trimmed in fake fur, but my brain knew that its shape (see photo below) could definitely cover my eyes. And my brain was convinced that the green hat was now on my face, blinding me–and why wouldn’t anyone TAKE IT OFF!!
- The surgery on my left eye was successful, I learned later, but Dr. S had bandaged both my eyes so that for five days, I was blind. From what I have read, this is standard procedure after strabismus surgery–the hope is that the eyes will properly realign. But again–there was no PATIENT EDUCATION for me or for my mother.
- I lay in that hospital bed from Monday night through Sunday. Five full days. My mother had my brothers to care for and of course in those days, no child visitors were allowed. She came to visit me but could do so only during visiting hours. I learned to listen for her footsteps echoing down the marble hallway. Sometimes the footsteps would end up in my room and it wasn’t my mother, but Sister Frances who also worked at the hospital. I remember she brought me a box of chocolates shaped like Dutch wooden shoes. I also remember that one day MY MOTHER COULDN’T COME.
- Someone had to feed me. At night things were even worse. I had to sleep on my back and to make sure I didn’t move, they put sandbags on either side of my head and they put a cardboard cuff around each elbow so that I wouldn’t reach up during my sleep and mess with my bandages–you know rip that GREEN HAT off my face.
- But I got through it. And my fear of ever being blind remains with me to this day. I take extremely good care of my eyes.
- Sunday was a sunny Chicago day. My mother arrived to take me home. They let me sit on the side of the bed while they removed ALL the bandages and flashed a light in my eyes and had me look up and down and sideways. Then they lightly patched the surgery eye and let me out of that bed.
- I don’t know where my mother was at this moment. Maybe again they made her leave the room and maybe the nurse turned away for a second, because I was in heaven and I was moving around and bang, I fainted dead away, hit the floor. Again, PATIENT EDUCATION. People who lie in bed for five days need to ease back into things!!
- But I could see! My mother’s face, the face of the nurse, the room where I’d been imprisoned, the bandages etc etc.
- My mother drove me home. I remember it was cold outside and we had had a conversation about what I would want to eat my first meal home. Get ready: I asked for hot dogs and mincemeat and raisin pie–always the sugar lover. Mom agreed to both, but not at the same meal. We had hot dogs.
I recently read Alice McDermott’s latest novel SOMEONE, in which she too describes experiencing being blind after eye surgery. Her prose far surpasses mine. And it makes me think she either went through what I did or knows someone who did. Thanks for reading.
Thanks to Google Images.