Thursday, 19 July 2012

Post-surgery blog: The pre-surgry preamble

So now that I’ve finally gotten around to posting a picture of me without glasses, it’s time to catch up on the blog about the whole experience. This is actually a multi-parter, so here’s the first part. In starting to write about my experience of having LASIK eye surgery and the social experiment my post-surgery life has turned into, I found myself explaining in snippets how I got to the point of needing the surgery in the first place. It made for some dis-jointed writing, so I figured I should put all of the background info here in one place.

Furthermore, my experiences throughout my life as a “girl who wears glasses” along with my decision to have a very risky surgery to end that problem is one that is often met with a sniff and an air of accusation of vanity. So this blog piece will be THE last time I will explain what I have gone through to remain sighted AND deal with a lifetime of other people’s baggage. From here on in, anyone asking questions or questioning my decisions will be sent here to read this. I’ve spent over 30 years explaining myself to people, and the buck stops at the end of this post.

 Most people assume that like “everyone” else, I got glasses as I grew up, probably late elementary school or early junior high. That’s when most people start wearing glasses, if they wear them before reaching middle age. That is not what happened in my case. I wore glasses since I was somewhere around 2.5 years old. I do not remember a time in my life in which I did not have to wear glasses. Therefore when I say having LASIK eye surgery and not wearing glasses is a life-long dream, I mean that absolutely literally.

I was born with an eye disease called Strabismus. There are variations on the visible effects of this disease, in my case my right eye turns inward. I also had an un-named condition which caused me to only be able to focus my vision by casting my gaze downward. As a result I had to tip my head way back, as far as it could go, and look downward to be able to see anything. On top of that, I was far-sighted as well.

The treatment for this involved wearing glasses at all times and spending several hours a day wearing a patch over my left eye to force my right eye to work harder and strengthen the weak muscle that cause the turn. I also at one point had to wear a prism on the lens of my right eye. Eventually I was made to wear bifocals sometime around when I turned 5. Finally I had surgery a month before turning 6 years old. In case you’re not following the ages, here it is spelled out: From 2.5 to 6 years old I did several hours a day of physiotherapy on my eye. No breaks, no days off. I had to see the ophthalmologist a few times a year which involved my parents having to lose time at work to take me from Glace Bay to Halifax. I also had to see an orthoptist monthly who, blessedly, started doing monthly visits to the old hospital in Sydney because there were no orthoptists in Cape Breton at the time.

Only after all of that did I have surgery. And let me be clear, that was NOT a laser surgery. It was full anesthesia and a scalpel in my eye. It was a complicated one as well. The ophthalmologist could only correct one of the two problems (eye turn or vertical gaze) 100%. He chose to correct the vertical gaze issue 100% because it could not be corrected with glasses as the eye turn could, and also because cosmetically it was a very socially damaging affliction to have. In other words, had he not corrected that 100% I would to this day be walking around with my head titled back and my eyes focused downward in order to see. I wouldn’t be able to do the vast majority of jobs, I certainly couldn’t drive a car, etc. I would have been left functionally disabled and socially I would have perpetually faced the presumption that I was mentally retarded due to my skewed appearance.

 Since the eye turn couldn’t be corrected 100% I do still, to this day, have a somewhat visible turn. It’s not always there, but if I’m tired, I’ve been reading for a while or occasionally if I’ve had too much alcohol it is blatant. It is also sometimes visible when I am finishing teaching a fitness class because if I’ve closed my eyes during the final stretch/meditation my right eye needs a minute or so to re-focus after I’ve opened them again. Yes, I get some weird glances in class when this happens, and I have had to explain myself in public more than once because of this.

After the eye surgery I still had strabismus and far-sightedness. Therefore I continued to have to wear bifocal glasses. I had bifocals with the line across the centre of the lens and then later the ones with the “1/2 moon” part in the inner corner of each lens. I didn’t get my first pair of multi-focals (aka “invisible bifocals”) until I was 16 years old. More on that later.

Sometime in the year I was 9 years old, the ophthalmologist noticed on a routine appointment that my eye, as he said, “looked different”. It turns out I had a very elevated level of pressure in my optic nerves of both eyes. Again, for those not initiated by age, this means I was showing signs of glaucoma. I was whisked into an exhausting battery of tests:
 - pressure tests - that’s the yellow drops and the blue light, normally never done on anyone under the age of 40 or 45;
- photos of my optic nerve – not like today with digital camera, this was the 80’s, so it meant leaning into a special camera lens while a full-strength camera flash went off in my eye. Since I could not control keeping my eye open (I’m extremely light-sensitive to start with) a nurse had to hold my eye open by force to have the photos done. It was by far the most excruciating, experience I have ever had, made only worse by the constant chastising of the so-called adults around me who were QUITE put out by my inability to “cooperate”. They’d be fired for speaking to a patient like that today, but back then it was ALL my fault and I just wasn’t being cooperative. Fuckwads.
- Field vision tests: to add to the annoyance and indignity of the above, my initial field vision tests basically showed I was completely blind. The problem was, the technician taking me through the test failed to properly explain to me what I was supposed to do in the test. Therefore I did it completely incorrectly and the machine “said” I had no vision at all. Obviously that wasn’t correct, so I had to do the test dozens of times again over many months on various similar machines to prove I was in fact not completely blind. I repeat… Fuckwads.

 I refused to ever have the optic nerve photos done again. I relented to a field vision test annually after that, only because my optic nerve pressure has remained elevated throughout my life, even though they show no narrowing of my field of vision whatsoever. I did end up having a photo done as part of my assessment for the LASIK surgery last fall, but only because there’s new technology and it’s neither as painful nor invasive as the old cameras. I haven’t been to my regular (i.e. non-laser) ophthalmologist since the LASIK surgery, so I assume the field vision tests will resume as usual when I see him next.

And for the record, I don’t and never did actually have glaucoma. I just naturally and normally (normal for me, anyway) have elevated pressure in my optic nerve. Lots of people do. So all of that whole episode ultimately was for nothing.

Anyway… at the age of 16 I got my first pair of “invisible bifocals” or multi-focals. Anyone who has worn them will know, multi-focals are not easy to get used to wearing. I had to be extremely careful because I was also learning to drive at the same time, so I often had to switch between my old bifocals and the new glasses for the first few months, just for safety. Going down the turn-around staircases at my high school was no treat either, and I very nearly passed out the first time did that with the multi-focals on.

Thankfully it only took me a few months to become accustomed to them, and I was pretty much fine with them, even though every new pair still took a few days of adjustment to be ok. Anything was better than the obvious bi-focals because as you can imagine, a child wearing bi-focals is extremely rare. While I occasionally got reactions from other kids, they were mostly polite inquisitiveness with only the occasional “freak” reaction thrown in. Adults on the other hand were a bit more of a problem. As I got older they got slightly better behaved, but the freaking-out panicky responses to seeing me, a mere “baby”, in bifocals will never leave me. People would tell me to my face that they “couldn’t believe” a child was wearing bifocals. So there I was somewhere between a lie and a mutated freak.

 Have I said the word “Fuckwads” lately?

The multi-focals were a god-send because they took that pressure off. People no longer shot out at me with anxiety and anger (yes, anger was often directed at me) because they couldn’t comprehend why  my vision was so bad that I had to wear bifocals and had physio & surgery as a child. No normal child had all these things wrong with them. I was simply too scary to comprehend.

Lots of teenagers wear glasses, and I was no longer distinguishable from any of them. I was able to pass as somewhat normal!! Sure there were still lots of assumptions I had to deal with from people but they were the same as any other person with glasses had to deal with. It was the first social relief I’d had in my entire life to that point.

This is usually the point in the story in which people demand to know why I didn’t just wear contact lenses. Trust me, I desperately wanted to wear contacts. Somewhere in the mess of all of the above I also developed an astigmatism. In the 90’s the opticians weren’t yet making contacts to fit astigmatisms. Even when the technology to do that was eventually developed in the early 2000’s, they still couldn’t make a multifocal lens and an astigmatism lens in the same lens. The technology for this STILL doesn’t exist.

So that brings me up to about 3 years ago. I actually went for an evaluation at a laser eye clinic. I was turned down because my astigmatism was too severe – at the time they couldn’t operate on an astigmatism above 3 diopters, which mine was – and because of the strabismus causing my right eye to wander too much. I can’t control the degree of the turn or when it’ll happen, which meant I was immediately rejected for the surgery to fix my far-sightedness.

Almost a year ago, after chatting with my regular ophthalmologist as well as a few friends who had more recently had the surgery, I went in for another assessment. The technology in this business changes rapidly. They now do astigmatisms well over 6 diopters, they have better tools for controlling the wandering of the eyes, and they have a new “wavefront” laser that covers people like me with unusually large pupils. I didn’t even know I had unusually large pupils until they assessed me!! Just one of the things wrong with my eyes - which btw totally explains my extreme light sensitivity!! – that I was never told about until this experience because they were not important compared to everything I’ve described above. It turns out I also have some soft spots on my right cornea – probably was born with them – that since the surgery are causing me some problems. Manageable with medication, quite frankly I’ll take the soft spots on my cornea over not having had the surgery any day!! But other than that, I’ve had no problems since the surgery was done on December 29th, 2011.

So there it is. The whole thing. I have written this here with the intention of never having to explain any of this again. If you have any questions, don’t ask me. I won’t be answering them. If there’s any medical terms you don’t know, that’s what Google is for so go look it up yourself.

I am living a new life as a person who no longer has people questioning my vision issues and no longer treats me by stereotypes because I have no choice but to wear glasses. That is what I referred to at the beginning of this peice as the post-surgical social experiment. THAT is a whole other blog for next week though.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the fantastic article. The place else could anyone get that kind of info in such a perfect means of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I am at the search for such information.

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