Super Sight (& eye surgery)
In the 70s David Bowie opened his Diamond dogs concert with an eyeball sliced open on a big screen. It was an image from an old black-and-white film inspired by Salvador Dali’s sighting of a thin cloud slicing through the moon. The eyeball image left an impression that is still with me 40 years later as I go for surgery at Pacific Cataract and Laser Institute in Vancouver, Washington.
While I wait, I watch several older (than me) people go in and come back out with one eye taped shut. When it is my turn I decline Versed, offered for anxiety. I’ve had 6 kids — there’s not much they can do to me, I reason. Besides, the entire surgery takes less than 10 minutes. I receive drops for dilation, and then drops for numbness so the anesthesiologist can put my optic nerve to sleep. This will be the worst of it, he says, sticking a needle in my eye. He then tapes my eye closed and I close the other eye seeking a deep state of relaxation.
In the operating room a nurse removes the tape from my eye, then tapes around it and drapes latex fall across my face. My eye is propped open.
I inhale latex and struggle against reaching up to remove the drape, knowing I’m not supposed to touch anything. The nurse cuts a hole for me to breathe but the lack of air, and the fact that I cannot close my eye is pole-vaulting me into panic mode, an unfamiliar feeling.
How are you doing? the doctor asks.
Not so well, I say. Am I supposed to see you? My left eye, numbed, and ready for surgery is seemingly wide awake.
Oh, no, you should only see some blurry lights.
I see you, I say…
He cocks his head, as if he doesn’t believe me. I cock my head in the same direction and and add, I see your face and mask. I see his hand on the microscope as he pulls it toward me, only slightly blurred. He looks perplexed.
Is it too late for Versed? I ask.
Well, yes. You’ve already been through the worst part, he says, the needle in your eye.
I am very hot and somewhat nauseous even though my stomach is purposefully empty.
Can you remove the blanket? I ask, trying to regain my calm.
A nurse removes the blanket she laid across me earlier when I was cold. She takes my hand. I try to find the thoughts that will keep me in this chairthey have turned into an operating table. If I could close my eye…., but of course I can’t. It is propped open with metal wires (something I don’t realize until later when I watch the DVD of my surgery filmed through the microscope). Unable to close my eye leaves me feeling that I have no control over my body, no control over anything. I hadn’t planned on watching the surgery. I try to push the image of the eye slice film away from my mind, place myself somewhere among the stars.
I think about how much I want this surgery, how long I’ve already waited in the outer room, wearing the granny cap for surgery, and how many older, seemingly frailer folks have emerged, grasping the nurse’s arm, but otherwise looking fine, happy even. I think of how quick the whole surgery goes. I take some deep breaths and muster some trust. Then I tell him to begin.
You’re going to hear a whirring sound, the doctor says. It’s the ultrasound breaking up your lens… How much information would you like as we go? I can tell you what I’m doing each step of the way…
A surgical narration is not the soothing bedtime story I’d like to hear right now.
Or I can give you percentages, how far along we are, he offers.
That sounds good, I say.
As he begins, he leans over me and blocks the light. Now I can’t see much but blurs and occasional flickers.
We’re at 10%, he says.
Then 1/4, and 1/2. I catch a surreal glimpse of the back of my eyeball, and a mirror image of the vessels encircling it, all in short flashes. He is at 3/4,… 90%, and then 99%. And we are done. Such relief. Someone rips the tape off my face and I flinch. But soon I’m sitting up and heading out.
I go home with a piece of tape over my eye and eye drops four times per day once my eye wakes up, in 2–6 hours. When my eye twitches I take off the tape and the eyelid raises a little, like a lazy or drunk eye. Images double, blur and cant to the side, but I can see. I keep my eye closed until things right themselves over the next hour or two.
It takes another day for dilation to return to normal. A week later I go back in and after testing am told I have 20/20 vision in my left eye, my close-up eye. I had been wearing a contact lens for reading, just in one eye. Now the equivalent of that lens is permanently implanted in my left eye. As soon as the recheck is over it is time to do surgery on my right eye, for distance.
I mention to the anesthesiologist that I was able to see the doctor last week, and he reassures me that I’ll be getting a strong dose, that I shouldn’t be able to see at all.
I decline the Versed again, but this time “claustro” is written above my name on my tag. The nurse makes a tent to hold the latex drape away from my nose and mouth.
Once again I can see everything — the doctor in his scrubs leaning over me, the microscope and light, the activity around me. I focus on breathing and how quick it will go. As soon as he begins there isn’t much to see, although it isn’t dark like a closed eye. There is nothing to fear, I tell myself, and breathe this thought through my body, willing it to relax.
24 hours later I have 20/20 vision in both eyes.
How long will these lenses last? I ask on my way out.
100 years, they say. They will outlast me.
So no more searching for glasses, or cleaner and special cloths, and no more cleaning my glasses several times a day. I never quite adjusted to wearing glasses, always smudging them, always taking them off when I didn’t need to see up close.
I feel set free, the clock turned back, eyes like a kid — well, almost. My vision is best at eye level, so low shelves are not as clear unless I bend down. Same with the screen in front of me. But it is all distinguishable. It was a blur before surgery. And my eyes will continue to adjust as they heal, so maybe that too will go away.
The day after my second surgery I put the DVD of my surgery in the player and watch. A wirey device protrudes from four corners of my eyeball keeping it open, and now I know why my eye socket feels sore. Our 11 year-old daughter is watching with me, making gagging and ooh-eew sounds, shrinking back, covering her eyes.
You don’t have to watch, I say. I have never shown her the eye slice film. But this replay of my eye surgery is both mesmerizing and slightly horrifying. It’s more violent than I imagined after the description in the extensive folder I received, yet not unnecessarily so. I’m glad I didn’t watch until both eyes were done.
The ability to watch the video and read without looking for glasses leaves me feeling slightly bionic, and fairly amazing.