It started with a full-service manicure.
The staff at my nail salon offered neck, back and shoulder massages as part of the manicure service. Instead of a table, they used an ergonomic chair where you kneel forward, sit, and place your face in a padded ring. I shucked my glasses and leaned in, but that day, I had trouble fitting my face comfortably into the space. The masseuse manipulated my shoulders and neck forcefully, and I felt my closed eye press hard against the padding. It was a fabulous massage, but when I dismounted the chair, I saw stars. I thought it was a reaction to the pressure and that the “stars” would dissipate. They didn’t; the sensation of seeing confetti in my eye persisted.
I wasn’t concerned at first. I was familiar with the phenomenon of "floaters" and thought this was more of the same. I was busy writing, meeting deadlines, and traveling, so I ignored the fact that I was constantly cleaning my glasses, thinking they were dirty, and using eye drops to wash away debris that could not be washed away. Over the next two months, my vision developed such ocular events as lightning flashes at night, dark shadows at the periphery during the day, and squiggly floaters round the clock. One morning, soon after a return flight to L.A., I woke up with hundreds of tiny black dots floating in the vision of my left eye. Wow, I thought, that’s different. I should probably see my eye doctor. I’d get around to it, I thought, but first I had to knock out these deadlines …
Days later, on a lunch break at my desk, I was on the phone with a dear friend. I shared, with amused detachment, that I was experiencing what looked like clouds of black pepper in my left eye. She shrieked, “What is wrong with you? Are you waiting for your eyeball to pop out on the table? You need to see a doctor, right now! Today!” Startled, I hung up and Googled my symptoms. All signs pointed to a retinal detachment. If the detachment progresses too far, eyesight is irretrievable. Now I was panicked.
Further research revealed that the University of California-Los Angeles was home to the Jules Stein Eye Institute, which runs a walk-in clinic. It seemed fortuitous to me, a music journalist, that the foremost ophthalmology center in the city was named after Stein, a doctor-turned-music executive, who after founding MCA Records returned to medicine to advance vision technology and fight blindness. I bolted from my seat and drove the 30 minutes to Westwood. The receptionist asked what the trouble was. I detailed my symptoms, ending with, “So … I think I detached my retina.”
As if a bat signal was launched or a panic button engaged, clinic staffers immediately swarmed over and rushed me past other patients into an examining chair. A pair of retinal specialists interrogated me, then shone a piercingly bright light into each of my eyes. The light was so powerful that I could actually see the outlines of my own retinas. So powerful that it seemed to cast its beam past my eyes into my skull and down into my bowels. I began to squirm.
The doctors called in more doctors, residents in training. The Stein Eye Center is a teaching facility, and it seemed that every ophthalmological trainee on duty was granted a look-see with the now-excruciating halogen torch. Though their demeanor was professional, there was an almost festival atmosphere of excited chatter among them. Faces leaned close, their breath stirring my hair. Turns out they had never seen a case as advanced, as complicated, as instructive as mine. One resident asked if he could “go again” with a second look. I developed the unfortunate feeling of being violated as these intense ocular examinations stretched into hours.
Nauseated and filled with anxiety, I finally asked, “I hate to break this up, but what’s my status?”
The doctors seemed startled, as if they’d forgotten an actual person was attached to the peepers they’d been poring over.
“Oh, yeah. You’ve detached your retinas,” I was told.
The retina is a thin membrane wallpapering the back of the eye that catches the images we see, reflecting them to our brain to process. For various reasons – a blow to the head, aging, or advanced nearsightedness like mine – the retina can break, tear, and eventually come unglued from the eye wall and begin to peel away. Vitreous fluid inside the eye can then seep behind the retina, carrying floaters, like the pepper spots I was seeing. The further the retina peels, the fewer nutrients it receives until it can no longer process images.
Those lightning flashes and dark shadows at the edge of my vision in my left eye were evidence that my retinal wallpaper was sagging significantly. If untreated, my retina could have shrunk past the central part of my eye, the macula, and left me permanently blind. The process was just beginning in my right eye; the retina had developed tears along the periphery that hadn’t yet impacted my vision.
"You need surgery immediately – tonight," added the head specialist.
The doctors then explained the surgery: extract my eyeball, clamp it onto a plastic belt called a scleral buckle that would hold my ragged eye tissue together, fill the eye with a gas bubble that would keep the retinal tissue tamped in place as it healed, then reinsert the eye. Oh, did I mention that they would drain my eye of vitreous jelly and replace it with the bubble, which would dissipate over time as my eye filled with its own fluid? Or that the buckle would remain a permanent fixture? It sounded frightening and more than a little sick-making.
Overwhelmed, I burst into tears. At 48, I became as unglued as my shrinking retinas. It was now seven at night. I had left work half done and a sandwich half eaten at the office. As a single woman who lived alone, far from relatives, I had a limited pool of folks who could drop everything at a moment’s notice to help, as I’d be unable to drive. My employer had just switched insurance carriers and I didn't yet have a medical ID card.
Further, the prospect of blindness in one or both eyes was numbing. Many blind people function effectively, but the rest of us too often take one of our main senses for granted. I have worn glasses since I was seven years old, and my eyesight has gotten progressively worse over the years. I have the highest eye prescription of anyone I know; I had even tried to slow the process with Lasik surgery a decade earlier, earning a full year without corrective lenses before nearsightedness reasserted itself. For years I had read in low light, stared at computer screens for hours on end, forgotten to use moisturizing drops, and smashed my eye sockets against massage chairs without a thought.
As the doctors began to make surgical arrangements and I was sent to the hospital intake office, I alternated between rational adult behavior and blubbering like a toddler. I made several desperate phone calls that returned few answers at that hour. Finally, I reached a breaking point. I felt railroaded and needlessly frightened by the doctors. I knew my situation was dire, but I was also aware of a distinct chomping-at-the-bit, hand-rubbing anticipation among the surgical residents to have a go at my unusual eye situation, like a football team before a big game.
It was all too much, too fast. I turned off the waterworks and informed the staff that I would return the next day. I couldn’t succumb to surgery with no way home, my car racking up charges in their parking lot, my work unresolved, and a $10,000-plus surgery bill that might not have been covered by insurance. With five hours' worth of dilating drops still in my eyes, I stumbled to the parking lot. One of the doctors trotted after me, pleading. "I'm not saying you could go blind overnight, but it's a strong possibility," he warned. I still made the ill-advised exit.
The next day, my business in order, I returned to Jules Stein. When I awakened after surgery, I felt as though I’d been hit by a truck. My left eye was bandaged and my head felt like it weighed 30 pounds. I lolled in the seat and fought nausea as a friend drove us to a pharmacy, paid for my prescriptions, then took me home. I could not have stood on my feet or held my head up long enough to get the scrips myself. My teeth chattered and I shivered uncontrollably thanks to the effects of the anesthesia.
Thus began my slow recovery, according to specific guidelines: Two weeks of continuously lying on my left side, 50 minutes out of every hour, so the gas bubble would sit in the proper spot. I could barely eat. I developed kinks in my neck. I took bird baths. I thought about my future and the fact that my demanding career had led me to live 3,000 miles away from my family. A detachment in one eye leads to detachment in the other, and though it had been caught in time, I wondered if it could happen again. I was getting older; surely, I didn’t want to face any future medical mishaps alone.
Uncovered, my eye looked a horror: Swollen, bruised and misshapen. I could barely open it. Through the ensuing weeks, as I was upright for longer periods, I went from seeping bandages to steampunk metal eye guard to sexy black eye patch, using three different medicated eye drops. I couldn’t drive or read. When my eye was uncovered, I could see the gas bubble as I looked out on the world.
I began receiving phone calls from friends and relatives I had not heard from in years. I'd had other surgeries, but this eye thing really got people fascinated, horrified, worried, and engaged. The idea of not being able to see, however briefly, or of having the eyes handled in any way, incited widespread squeamishness. People who asked me to explain what happened would gag, squirm, and stop me the minute I got to the details of the scleral buckle procedure.
Eventually I returned to the eye center for a series of outpatient laser procedures to repair the tears in my right eye. Those were comparatively easy – if you consider the feeling of stinging, burning ants attacking the inside of your eye to be easy.
Detaching my retinas was one of the toughest health issues I’ve yet experienced. I’m grateful that I emerged with my vision intact. Losing my sight over time is still a possibility, but I’ve learned that vision is not only in the eyes. It took the prospect of blindness to see just how overworked, isolated, and unhappy I’d been. Once I healed, I gave notice at my job and moved back to the East Coast to be near my parents and siblings. I’ve never looked back.