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.

14 thoughts on “Five Days Blind

  1. Oh Beth, what a scary ordeal for you as a young girl all alone in the hospital with sandbags so you wouldn’t move and not be able to see for 5 days! Oh my….I remember my Dad having sandbags after cataract surgery…just the thought makes me shiver. And then you faint getting up…but I had to smile at your request for hot dogs, and mincemeat and raisin pie…sounds perfectly logical to me. I remember being in the hospital at age 4 for a tonsillectomy and all I could think of was that awful ether smell, but the reward of ice cream was oh so sweet! Hugs to you, Carol

    • Wow, Carol, we did have similar experiences. I never had the tonsillectomy thing, but I know that was painful. I was never in pain, just lonely and sacred. Hugs, Beth

  2. Good to read about this very trying time for you – so little and so scared. I remember your coming home and for a long time – is this right? – wearing glasses which had a dark lens for the affected eye.
    My memory is that this entire procedure was done gratis for Mom as professional privilege – because Dad was gone.
    And here you are so many years later and a beautiful woman!

    • Hi John, so sweet of you to read and comment. And YES, I do believe Dr. Sweeney did this gratis. Not sure how the hospital bill was paid and in those days you were in there a LONG TIME. And yes I do think they patched my glasses and then Mom, God bless her, had to drive me downtown a few times a week to the Orthoptic Institute where I worked on a machine to put the ball in the box. But I never could and years later a doctor told me I NEVER COULD HAVE, because my brain had already matured and made that decision. But the doctors didn’t know that at the time. Fascinating. Love you, Me

  3. Oh Beth, How scary that must’ve been an obvious a memory you will never erase.I can’t help but think of how insensitive people often are, even today when it comes to helping someone cope with a crisis or anxiety about an unknown.So glad to know everything turned out well but I can well understand your anxiety about your eyes even now.

    • Thanks, Kathy. I hope that I am now always sensitive to others concerns. We live in our bodies with hope that they will always function for us. And sometimes we deal with stuff that will take us where we want to go, but the journey is tricky. Beth

  4. I know this feeling! I had surgery on holes in my retinas in both eyes. I was pregnant and refused anesthetic. The darkness was terrifying as I had bandages over both eyes and my head between supports all night. Your descriptions are accurate. I can’t imagine how afraid you were as a child. I, too, treasure my vision.

  5. Wow, you really did have a tough time. In both eyes. And pregnant. You were brave and cautions and I congratulate you for doing what you did. Take care, Elaine, Beth

  6. So well told. I was leaning in to read what would come next. Fortunately, I never had that experience. My husband was in the children’s hospital for 9 months and often recalls how lonely it was (his mom had 8 other kids at home at the time).

  7. Wow, 9 months. I cannot imagine and I am sure he has some sore memories. There are probably more people than we realize who had to be separated from their families when they were young. Polio was rampant a few years before I was born and into the early 50s. That would have put many children in the hospital. Thanks so much for your comment, Beth

  8. I’ve had cataract surgery in my 40s and that was scary enough. This must have been such an ordeal for you, Beth. And we sometimes still have this kind of lack of information in hospitals in India. I’m glad to say things are changing, but a very long way to go for those who are poor and uneducated and must depend on government hospitals. Scary doesn’t begin to describe what they must go through.

    • Thanks, Corinne. There is so much pain related to any kind of illness and surgery when we think about the people all over the globe who do not have good health care. It is stunning when you think it’s 2016 and we haven’t come that far in some areas of human health. Thanks for reading.

  9. How awful for you and your mother, Beth, thankfully your vision was fine too. Glad that things have progressed in that department. My mother had her own experience with a sick child in the 50’s. Two of my three kids needed surgeries when they were babies, the thought of being denied access would have been so awful, glad that things have improved here in that regard.

    • Hi Elin,

      I think what you went through was very difficult. Surgery on an infant. Thank God we now encourage moms to be right there, through it all. I don’t think you were that sick child you mention in the 50s. You are too young, but possibly you lost a sibling. Life can be hard on a family. Wishing you the best, Beth

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