My Very Own Miracle

Threading needles is out, as is focusing my beloved 35 mm Nikon. But I've embraced the digital world of photography. I can't bowl or play tennis to save my life and you wouldn't want me pitching for your ball team. The fact is I couldn't do any of that before anyway.
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Strange how life can throw us a curve and suddenly we are immersed in a world we knew nothing of.

In my case it was eye trouble.

I think it started when I was bitten on my right temple by a very large wasp. The side of my head swelled to ridiculous proportions and although I had a wedding the next day I put on oversized sunglasses and went and danced anyway.

It seems this marked the beginning of my travails with my eyes. Did the swelling cause my already genetically-challenged retina to weaken and dislodge? Would it have anyway?

A few weeks later I awoke to blurriness in the right eye. To test it, I covered it and uncovered it, rinsed it repeatedly and inserted eye drops, but the fogginess persisted. I made an appointment with my optometrist -- I'd always been severely myopic so this was familiar territory. The optometrist diagnosed a cataract, which he said would slowly get worse, but could be left alone for now. I trusted him.

One month later I could barely see out of it. This time I sought out an ophthalmologist. By the time I got an appointment I had lost all sight in the eye.

After examination the doctor announced that yes, I did indeed have a cataract. But the more pressing problem was one the cataract had, alas, obscured. It seemed my retina had completely detached.

Without delay the doctor led me up a flight of stairs, through a waiting room packed with patients, and into the office of a retinal surgeon. The surgeon shook his head as he was told my story; not exactly a comforting sight. No doubt he was dismayed by the serious failure of my optometrist in his diagnosis.

As it turned out, luck was with me in one sense that day: I was being put into the skilled hands of an esteemed authority in retinal surgery, Toronto's Dr. Wai-Ching Lam. After the preliminaries, Dr. Lam said to me in his quiet, unassuming manner,

"Ms. McCallum, I do not know if I can restore your sight. But I will try. And you must follow my instructions to the letter following the surgery."

I was to find out what they were in time.

Thus the first of my eye micro-surgeries was scheduled, this one two days hence, for as Dr. Lam impressed upon me, the longer the wait, the more exacting would be his challenge.

Never make the mistake as I did the night before such an event of entering this search term into Google: Detached retinal surgery - images. It is ill-advised at best, at worst the stuff of very bad dreams.

With these ghoulish pictures playing on a loop in my head I presented myself at the hospital the following morning. Several hours later when I awoke half my head was bandaged and I was groggy from anesthetic. That night as the meds wore off I was unprepared for the excruciating pain. Even Percocet didn't touch it. I think now Dr. Lam was right to not mention what I would be facing post-op.

And no wonder my discomfort. A scleral buckle made of silicone now encircled my entire eyeball, repositioning the retina and holding it in place. Think of it as a belt around the waist of trousers. A vitrectomy had also been performed, replacing the vitreous with a saline solution as yet another aid to vision. (The vitreous is the gelatinous substance that fills the eyeball.) There had been stitching and cutting and pulling and, let's face it, general unpleasantness.

Eye surgery has progressed, mercifully. Not long ago the eyeball was removed from the socket in cases like mine. Gruesome, to be sure. Today, tiny nylon strings inserted at four points around the circumference of the eyeball allow the surgeon to manipulate the organ, much like a marionette.

Following the surgery, the rehabilitation process was extensive. An inert gas had been inserted into the eye to stabilize it as the retina gradually reattached itself to the back of my eye. But here was the rub: for the gas to work its magic I was not allowed to move my head from a bowed position; that is, chin down to chest for several weeks. Many people find themselves unable to keep to this unnatural position for so long, and when they fail to do so the retina will often fail to knit.

The stakes were high. At home, my bed was now on the living room floor. I hung my head off the edge of a mattress, face down into a foam doughnut. And there I slept. In time I did get used to this, but I can imagine how it would drive some people crazy. My industrious husband built a raised platform for the mattress and placed a TV underneath, the screen facing up, to help me pass the time. I could also read that way with my good eye.

As the gas dissipated my vision returned, blurry at first, unspooling itself from the bottom up, like watching a curtain rise in a theater. Slowly, almost magically, the world unveiled itself to me once again. It took several weeks but eventually the curtain had risen -- fully.

My vision was thus restored. Not as good as I had hoped for. Still, I was deliriously happy and grateful.

At my side throughout I had a stalwart partner in my husband. He washed my long hair and dried it, helped me bathe and dress myself, prepared my meals and fed me, all so as to avoid undue head movement.

The experience gave me an appreciation for something else, something I had never given a moment's thought, as so often happens with watershed moments in our lives. Since then I have never taken for granted being able to simply lift my head up, freely, and unencumbered.

What followed were many years of micro-surgeries and procedures on my eyes. The upstart cataract was eventually removed and then a very large one appeared almost suddenly in my other eye. The second retina acted up next. A large hole at its centre was discovered and then repaired with several hundred shots of pinpoint laser, as were subsequent fissures in both of my eyes. I was no less than a work in progress.

One particular surgery required I spend the night beforehand in a downtown hospital. I was in a four-patient room, the only space available. Across from me lay a young woman who started talking on the phone at eight pm and was still at it four hours later. I finally lost it, turned to her and shouted: "This isn't a f --- ing phone booth!" She glanced at me with casual disinterest, and scarcely missing a beat continued her animated conversation. I walked a few quiet, darkened hallways that night.

I remember the man who was led through my surgeon's waiting room one early morning ahead of all of us. Why was he permitted to jump the queue? This was a man in bright orange prison garb who shuffled past us in leg chains, flanked by armed guards. He kept his head down as he walked past.

There was the little girl who sat beside me as we awaited our eye surgeries. She told me that because of a genetic malformation she had lost sight in one eye and the surgeon was about to try to save her remaining eye. She was 8 years old and sweetness itself. We sat together in our plastic shower caps and hospital gowns, chatted and giggled and played rock, paper, scissors; I told her she was the only person who was ever able to make any sense of that game for me: I still think of her whenever I hear it mentioned.

Her doctor came in first, and before being wheeled away she reached her hand out from her stretcher across from me. I grabbed it and squeezed, then blew her a kiss.

"Catch it," I told her. She did, playfully. I often wonder what the future held for that young girl.

My right eye is now severely compromised; the left eye less so. For starters the right lacks depth perception and, as a result, I am continually mottled black and blue to varying degrees down my right side from glancing off table corners and other troublesome jutting edges. I move with less physical certainty in the world than I once did and have turned both ankles repeatedly by misjudging the depth of stairs and curbs and chairs. And bathtubs! The eye guides me well enough though. On very cold or damp days the silicone buckle grouses a bit. But it's tolerable.

Threading needles is out, as is focusing my beloved 35 mm Nikon. But I've embraced the digital world of photography. I can't bowl or play tennis to save my life and you wouldn't want me pitching for your ball team. The fact is I couldn't do any of that before anyway.

I think from time to time the eye sends me sudden shooting pains that rock me from my head to my socks just to remind me of how lucky I got.

How very lucky.

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