perm_identity You never know what you might see

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 169 ~ June, 2011

I’m the oldest of four, and for some reason I seem to be the only one not preparing to consider myself a senior and accepting my life has already reached its pinnacle.

I must confess, I’m a bundle of nerves and tend to think I suffer from numerous ailments until I show up at a doctor’s office and go down a checklist marking “no” next to various conditions and physical problems, many of which I have no idea what they are.

And fortunately, despite an over active imagination, so far I haven’t been prone to thinking I’ve developed physical problems based on commercials on television warning about peripheral artery disease or low testosterone, or any of a number of things that generally don’t come to mind.

Of course, since I am part of the baby boom generation, it makes sense that it seems products and commercials are shifting somewhat from appealing to an overwhelming youth market to instead trying to terrify those who are beginning to age.

Demographics and money, I suppose, lead to such a strategy.

Still, even if I suspected I might have some of the conditions requiring treatment with certain medications touted on television commercials, since we live in such litigious times, the disclaimers about such pills leading to depression, insomnia, and this or that, and perhaps even suicide in some cases, scares the hell out of me and immediately drives me away as a potential consumer.

All of this is a prelude to a routine annual appointment I had last week with my ophthalmologist.

I’ve been seeing the same eye doctor for some 20 years, and my mother had also been his patient.

In fact, my mother, who was blinded in her right eye at the age of ten when her cousin zapped her dead center with a paperclip shot from a rubber band, would go to the ophthalmologist every two months or so to have her eye pressure checked, to monitor her glaucoma, and she also had previously undergone tear duct surgery and a cornea transplant.

I couldn’t have hoped for a better ophthalmologist, thanks to my mother, plus he’s widely recognized for his ability to perform wonders with laser surgery.

My first surprise upon my routine visit was my ophthalmologist didn’t accept the insurance plan the company I work for switched over to at the beginning of the year.

I can’t say I was shocked, but I was certainly stunned when my fifteen dollar co-payment all of a sudden became a three hundred dollar bill, one I was expected to pay in advance.

I was going to leave, but I heard my mother’s voice telling me to be responsible, to put my health first, so since I uncharacteristically had my checkbook with me, due to repaying a debt to a friend earlier that day, without giving proper thought to my upcoming rent, I made a check out to the ophthalmologist in the appropriate amount.

I probably wouldn’t have diligently gone for an annual eye checkup if it hadn’t been for a freak accident when I was eighteen and still living under the false premise of the invincibility of youth.

It was a Saturday night, the next day April Fool’s Day, as well as Easter, when I was at a party in the dorm room at Columbia University shared by two guys I knew from high school.

Spring vacation was coming to an end and it was the last weekend before I would be heading back to a small college in Massachusetts where I felt completely out of place, mostly because I didn’t have shoulder length hair, smoke excessive amounts of pot, or play the guitar — not that I was against such things, but found it disconcerting that there were many more guys like that than not at the school.

We needed to get more beer for the Columbia dorm room party so my friend Andy and I headed across Broadway to a deli on the corner of 113th Street.

I walked straight down the aisle from the cashier toward the back corner of the store and scooped a six pack of Bud off the shelf.

I took a couple steps, hesitated, then turned back and grabbed another six pack.

Just as I was facing the front of the store, I spotted two guys by the cashier fumbling with a quart bottle of beer, sort of pushing it back and forth among each other, as if to say, “Do you have it?” or “Do I?” and then I heard a crash, splattering glass, and my hands instinctively shot up to cover my right eye.

I was disoriented, but not in pain.

I was confused, realized I had been injured, but somehow didn’t think it was serious, spotting a couple drops of blood on the right breast of my shirt and somehow thinking perhaps I had a slight cut on my forehead or cheek, little knowing that much was about to change in a split second.

I stood frozen in the aisle when all of a sudden, a man in jeans with a gun drawn appeared in front of me and another guy, also with gun drawn, came flying over the shelf to my right, knocking canned goods and cardboard boxes all about. Andy, who had smoked a fair amount of marijuana, and may even have been tripping on acid, leaned on the counter by the cashier, dazed and passive, while I remained immobile, my hands still covering my right eye.

The two gunmen were undercover detectives who had been getting sandwiches from the counter at the other back corner of the deli when they heard the crash and commotion.

Somehow possible robbery came to mind, spurring them to action, but both cops immediately figured out what had happened, certainly long before Andy or I did.

I’m not sure whether I was grabbed by one cop or both, but I was quickly ushered to an unmarked car parked in front of the deli, with Andy following in feeble protest, not sure whether I was being kidnapped or what was taking place.

I was in the front seat between the two plainclothes cops and I heard the siren as the car made a u-turn on Broadway and other cars stopped or scooted out of the way, and moments later I was being led into the emergency room at St. Luke’s Hospital.

Even at that moment, no warning light came to me.

I should have known when you walk into an emergency room in a hospital in Manhattan on a Saturday night and heads turn and gasp, you probably don’t have a minor injury.

I truly thought I was about to get a few stitches, something I was familiar with from childhood mishaps, and would be back at the dorm room in no time drinking a can of Budweiser.

The time sequence gets a bit hazy but I didn’t have to wait or spend time answering many questions before I found myself in what seemed like a dentist’s chair with a nondescript man in a white coat shining a small light in my right eye.

“What’s up?” I asked, rather nonchalantly.

“If we get you into surgery within the next hour we might be able to save your eye,” the doctor said without emotion.

Huh? I thought.

Did I hear him right?

“How long will I be here?” I asked.

“Maybe two weeks,” the doctor answered.

Instantaneously, all my problems became one, having emergency eye surgery and seeing if they could save my eye.

I didn’t know whom the “we” was, and didn’t comprehend much of anything else that was going on after that.

I was taken to a room, different orderlies and nurses were scurrying about, needles and such were injected in my arm, I was aware of my parents by the side of the moveable bed, accompanied by a cardiologist friend who was affiliated with St. Luke’s, and then what seemed like a bowl coming down toward my face and a voice telling me to count backwards from one hundred and I remember reaching ninety-eight and I was out.

My next conscious thought was of my throat feeling raw and sore as I lay on a mobile stretcher, the right side of my head encased in gauze as if I was a mummy, the dressing lapping over across my forehead and then over the top of my left ear, thought I could still see 20/20 out of my undamaged eye.

The pain didn’t hit right away, but later, once in my hospital room, I experienced the most excruciating pain I’d ever felt in my life.

It was as if someone was standing in the back on my head with a plunger, pushing it down against my eye and then yanking it off with the explosive suction of knives slicing through and out the back of my eye.

And just as I screamed, the plunger started down again.

The nurse arrived quickly, and I think I was given Demerol, and not a mild dose, and my hand was guided to a button to press if I needed a pill for pain, which, of course, during the first few days, I utilized quite frequently.

I actually remember the piercing in my head being so severe, when I pushed the button, I was babbling, “Pain for pill, pain for pill.”

A strange sensation overcomes you, or at least it did me, when lying in such a helpless, unexpected situation and watching the surgeon looking pleased as he unwrapped my injured eye and examined it.

I can write a sentence with ease but know virtually nothing about anatomy or human physiology; couldn’t even bring myself to dissect a frog in ninth grade biology, and was freaked out when I heard of others called upon to dissect actual cats.

Maybe it’s a blessing, the bliss of ignorance, and maybe not, depending on anxiety level.

I was an obedient patient because I didn’t know how to be otherwise, and I was scared, very scared, had no idea what lay ahead.

I learned about my surgeon’s dedication, and am grateful he rushed into the hospital to operate on me in the early hours before Easter morn.

I learned he was the only one who thought there was even a minimal chance of saving my eye. Everyone else involved or assisting believed he should simply remove the eye, but he went with instinct, or experience, or confidence in his ability, or whatever, and as a result, I still have a right eye.

I have no idea what he did, or what was involved.

I do know my cornea was severed and I needed thirty-nine stitches in my eyeball, which were subsequently removed six weeks later, involving another ten-day stay in the hospital with a pressure bandage covering my entire head because of leaking in the interior chamber of my eye, which I did’t understand either, but knew was serious from the way I was rushed back into bed when the surgeon’s cohort was examining me to give me the green light to be discharged and noticed the problem.

My eye accident certainly gave me perspective regarding other people’s vision.

When I first left the hospital, my eyesight was perfect about three quarters in front of me, due to peripheral vision, and then suddenly there was a swarm of water colored shapes as if looking through a kaleidoscope or being on a mescaline trip.

I couldn’t stand it; it felt like my head was lopsided.

I wanted to run, but how does one run from one’s own vision, so I opted for a black eyepatch instead.

The recovery period was tedious, continuous rounds of drops, no sudden movement, caution all the time, every waking moment defensive, protecting the damaged eye, and taping a metal shield over it at night.

But here I am many years later, still 20/20 in my left eye, and miraculously, or so the doctors say, 20/25 in my right, which I think sucks, compared to what It once was, but gives me an awareness about the vision of others which I never would have had, what poor vision many have to struggle with, which others take for granted.

And my current ophthalmologist, or perhaps former ophthalmologist, depending on the insurance situation, is amazed at the operation performed by that surgeon many years ago when the equipment and technology available was “prehistoric” compared to recent advancements.

So, each year, whenever I went for my visit with my ophthalmologist I always considered it routine, except I knew there would always be a long wait.

That’s is, until last week, I was caught off guard when I learned he didn’t accept my insurance, and then I suspected something was wrong when my doctor paused after examining my dilated right eye and then walked over toward his desk.

I waited, knowing something out of the ordinary was coming.

“It’s probably nothing,” he finally said.

“There’s a slight macro aneurism in your retina that wasn’t there before.”

He referred me to a retina specialist, to be on the safe side, but first I told him about my insurance situation, and though he ruefully acknowledged my insurance coverage sounded great, he told me it was quite the reverse, but did check to make sure the retina specialist would accept it, which apparently he does.