Five Days Blind

Five Days Blind

Probably after the surgery.

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:

  1. My mother could not be with me. Some ancient hospital policy.
  2. I woke up hungry and remembered Mom had put some cough drops in the top drawer of this little bedside table.
  3. I leaned way over, got that drawer open and got me a cough drop.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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!!
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. 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.
  17. 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!!
  18. But I could see! My mother’s face, the face of the nurse, the room where I’d been imprisoned, the bandages etc etc.
  19. 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.


The “nightmare” hat was like this, only green cloth trimmed in fake brown fur. It’s probably in a landfill somewhere and it can stay there!

Five Days Blind

An ether mask.

Seeing Clearly

Seeing Clearly

I prayed that was vision would not be harmed.

It was a hot July Iowa day and I was in a hurry. I had to drop off a proof-reading project and then rush across town for a two o’clock appointment with my optometrist. Recently I had noticed some changes in my vision and I wanted a new prescription. Because the doctor had squeezed me into his schedule for an exam and refraction, I wanted to be on time. As I drove I daydreamed about some more stylish frames. Maybe I wasn’t seeing clearly.

I have always worn glasses. I started when I was two. Born with strabismus, the muscles of my eyes weren’t coordinated and images sent to my brain were out of sync. My left eye wandered. Surgery at the age of five fixed my left eye, but by then the right had become permanently weakened or “lazy.” I traded the strabismus for amblyopia in my right eye. So I grew up aware of having only one good eye. If something was thrown at me, I learned to cover my eyes with my hands.

The nurse began the eye exam with the usual chart reading—using one eye at a time you read from top to bottom these lines of letters that move from large fonts to very small.  I was puzzled.  I was having difficulty reading the letters with my left eye, the good one.  This had never happened before and in my life I’ve had more than the normal amount of eye exams.  The nurse put drops in my eyes. After twenty minutes she took a light and studied my left eye which stung incessantly from the drops and the constant presence of the light. When she stepped back and left the room, I was anxious. The doctor came in. After quick hellos he sat down and also began to examine my good eye, using light and magnification instruments.

“I think I should refer you to a retinal specialist” he finally said. “It looks to me like a problem with the thin covering on the very center of your retina. The macula. It determines your central vision.”  He wrote down a doctor’s name, briefly rested his hand on my shoulder, and  left the room.

I could feel myself starting to cry. I was scared. I gathered my things and quickly left the office. In the car I did cry—much of my life is about reading books and writing. How could I do intricate proofreading with my weak right eye? Magnification wouldn’t even help it. If there was something seriously wrong with my good eye, something that would get worse, my life would radically change. And it had all happened so quickly. As tears clouded my vision it struck me like a flash of lightening, if this had to happen to me, why didn’t it happen to my bad eye. WHY?

I called my husband. He spoke quietly and positively reminding me to be especially careful driving home. I’m sure I prayed that night, asking God to help me. But just like my eyes recovering from the eye drops, I wasn’t focused.

A week later my husband drove me to the appointment with the retinal specialist. I liked the doctor immediately and felt a sense of calm settling over me. As I waited for more eye drops to take effect, I convinced myself that the chances of this being nothing were almost 100%. My mind wandered to the proofreading work I had at home and a list of other things I would accomplish once the dilation and blurriness wore off.

But when the exam had hardly begun, the doctor stepped back. “You do have a fold in the macula of your left eye. It’s not a hole yet, but a fold. It’s tiny, but it’s there and affecting your ability to see the letters on the eye chart.” I focused on his words, realizing yes, with my glasses I could still read print, find tiny periods and commas when I proofread, but the eye chart was a challenge and so were street signs and license plates until I was almost on top of them.

“I’m not exactly sure why this has happened,” he said. “The vitreous or jelly in the eyeball is pushing on the macula and creating the fold. We want it to stop. And it might release. But if it gets worse, we have to do surgery and it’s not a pleasant recovery. For now I can only tell you that you should be able to still do your work and I’ll see you in six weeks.”

Six weeks?

I thanked him, moving clumsily out of the exam room because of my dilated eyes. I wanted to get home and be alone; this just wasn’t happening to me. In the car I relayed everything to my husband.

“It could release.”  I said the words and they echoed in my head all afternoon as I tried to work. But I was angry and struggling. Why was it my good eye?  Would someone please tell me that! And if I needed the surgery, how would my vision be afterwards? Would I be able to sit and read WAR and PEACE, my plan for retirement?  I pictured myself with one of those lighted magnifiers. Then the words echoed again. “It could release.”

Something opened in me when I heard those words. Were they full of hope? “It could release.” Maybe they were like a door partially opened—yes, that was it. God had done that, He had partially opened the door and all I had to do was ask that it be opened the rest of the way. My thoughts ran on—if I prayed, it would release. There was no medicine I could take, no exercise I could do, so I would believe in my body’s ability to heal and God would help. Faith, strong everyday faith, would help my body. With faith the vitreous would release and I would be able to use my left eye, my only good eye. I prayed hard that night.

The next day as I drove to drop off my proofreading assignment, I found myself listening to silence.  I prayed.  Over and over I called on my faith so my eye would heal. I pictured the fold releasing as I prayed. From then on I did this every day in the morning when I awoke and every time I was alone in the car. I was focused. Six weeks passed and the doctor saw no change.

“It’s the same, no bigger. I’ll see you in two months.”

Good news?  I slipped back into my old thinking; I got angry. How long was this going to go on?  Would I approach every article I read in the newspaper, every book I picked up  with fear hanging over me?  The doctor acted positively, but he didn’t have all the answers. This was my sight, my job and the life-long ability to read stories and gather information. To that effect I had read about the surgery and just couldn’t see that it would solve this problem. I had never complained that I only had one good eye. I wasn’t some hero athlete dealing with a throwing arm, or a prima ballerina with a bad Achilles tendon, or even a rock musician who had blown away her hearing. I just wanted to be able to read. That day and night I forgot to pray.

The next morning I was driving again, squinting at street signs. Tears filled my eyes as I began to pray over and over, release, release, please make the fold release, save the sight in my eye. Then I said aloud, I will believe and work through this challenge, through the possibility of having a permanent handicap.  But was I strong enough? In any case, I had no choice. This was mine and I owned it, surrendering my fear.

On a cold autumn day I was out raking leaves. I would see the doctor in a week. In the graying twilight, I looked down and an inky black thread crossed my vision. I closed my right eye—yes, the vision in my good eye was being hindered by this new black, thick floater.  Now my heart was pounding.  I hurried inside, saying nothing to my family.  Recently I’d had silver flashes in my peripheral vision, made phone calls to the doctor, researched retinal tears. I was getting used to sorting through symptoms, trying to understand what was happening to my vision.

I calmed myself down as I made dinner. I would wait an hour or two. Then maybe I would go to the emergency room. But in that time period, the black threads disappeared. My vision was the same. I slept well that night.

“Now we know what happened,” the retinal specialist said a week later. “You have gone through what we call a posterior vitreous detachment, PVD; the vitreous jelly slowly detaches from the retina with no harm done. And it usually happens very slowly as you age, so slowly you don’t know its happening. Yours went through like a runaway train and left a tiny fold. And maybe even that will go away, but aside from the street-sign-reading problem, your vision is good and you won’t need surgery.”

I was ecstatic. I thanked God. But something more important had happened and I began to truly see it. Some release may have occurred in my eye, but the true release was in me—I was the one who opened the door all the way and let my faith in. And my faith held me up. In the end, there was a change in my eye, but also in me. I would no longer take my good health for granted and I would protect it every day. I guess you could say I was seeing clearly.      

Thanks to Google Images