February 4, 2008
Doctor, my eyes
Mary Loftus is associate editor of Emory Magazine.
My cousin, the one who was a year younger and had a mean streak, would sometimes hide my glasses when we were kids.
The gold-framed, John Denver-style spectacles I favored in middle school would turn up under a pillow or in a dresser drawer, but there was always that moment of frustration verging on panic when I realized, “I can’t find my glasses because I can’t see well enough without them to look for them.”
My 20/400 vision meant that I was legally blind without corrective lenses. My mother was sure I had ruined my eyes while reading too many books (which, interestingly, is now gaining credence as a cause); my father was convinced I had inherited his severe near-sightedness as well as his eye color.
All I knew was that everything I loved — thick books, stacks of magazines, writing in my journal, watching shooting stars on summer evenings — involved being able to see clearly.
I would sometimes fearfully imagine that, like the ill-fated character in the “Twilight Zone” episode “Time Enough at Last,” whose glasses shatter after Armageddon, some disaster would befall society at large, or me specifically, and I would be forever handicapped by my ‘no-I-can’t- even-see-the-big-E’ misshapen, myopic eyeballs.
Contacts soon replaced glasses, but they seemed even more fragile, ripping and slipping and growing dry and scratchy during late-night writing sessions.
I jumped at LASIK surgery the minute it became mainstream. After a brief healing period, I had joined the world of 20/20 vision. I could see the bedside clock in the middle of the night, work on my laptop until 1 a.m. without irritation, dive underwater with eyes wide open.
This was the beginning of taking my bright, shiny, newly perfected vision for granted. Had I actually once depended on that pair of tortoise-shell glasses that now rest like an antiquity atop my desk? Had I relied completely on those clear little circles floating in saline? I had seven years of visual bliss.
And then, one morning a few months ago, I woke with a sore, red right eye. I made an appointment at the Emory Eye Center, where several clinicians stared into my sensitive pupil with a very bright light. I was prescribed low-dose steroid drops.
Over the next few days, the vision in my eye grew worse. If I closed my left eye, I couldn’t read, couldn’t navigate, couldn’t drive. I felt off-balance. Floaters started filling my field of vision, bright flashes exploding on the periphery. It was as if I were looking through a lens coated with Vaseline.
On my next visit to the clinic, I received a diagnosis: a severe form of anterior uveitis, in which my eye’s iris had actually adhered to its lens. This was a malady I never knew existed, until I developed it. And, as I discovered from obsessive googling, it is the third leading cause of blindness in the U.S.
One of the advantages of working for a major research university is that an expert in whatever illness you may have developed probably works within a stone’s throw of your office. The nationally ranked Emory Eye Center receives 80,000 patient visits a year, and many drive hours to be seen here.
I was referred to the third floor of the center, where the waiting room is divided into glaucoma, neuro-ophthalmology and retinal patients. Except for a few children, some of whom were reading books at magnification machines, I was the youngest person in the room. Some patients had canes and dark glasses and were living my old, familiar fear — a world painted by the impressionists, all soft lines and running colors.
Anterior uveitis, I had read, was autoimmune, often idiopathic, and usually affected only one eye at a time. Sometimes, however, both eyes became involved. Melodrama overtook me for a moment, as my childhood paranoia came rushing back: my “weak” eyes were returning to threaten my current competencies. How would I work as a writer? How would I care for my children?
An older man seated next to me, also diagnosed with AU, showed me a color-coded chart for the seven medications he takes daily, including eye drops. “I live alone, so that’s a challenge,” he said. “Hitting my eye instead of my cheek.”
Another patient, who works at a halfway house helping recovering addicts, has had chronic AU in both eyes for years, but assured me that her vision always returned. “I remember panicking the first time, thinking I was going completely blind,” she said. “But Dr. S. is amazing. He’s the best.”
Indeed, Sunil Srivastava, assistant professor of ophthalmology and a vitreo-retinal surgery and disease specialist, had completed his fellowship in uveitis at the National Eye Institute and was reassuringly confident and well-informed.
He gave me several prescriptions, and saw me every few weeks for the next few months. I got 30 percent better, 50 percent better, 75 percent better. And then came the day when I could see nearly as well out of my right eye as my left.
“How common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness,” wrote Virginia Woolf in her 1926 essay “On Being Ill.”
I had, with help, navigated back from my own undiscovered country into the comfortable territory of my busy, familiar life. Any fears that linger do so in the shadows.