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Off the Chart
October 23, 2004

Once Upon a Beach
I was in 7th or 8th grade, circa 1979.  A couple of neighbor kids, Tina and Louie Gallo, invited me to join their family for a week in Santa Cruz.  I loved the beach, and Santa Cruz had a boardwalk with roller coasters, carousels, and cotton candy.  It was basically an amusement park right on the beach, and I was thrilled to be spending a week there with my friends.

One afternoon all of us kids were playing in the waves.  I was blind as a bat, but because I wore contact lenses I had to remove them before going in the water.  We were having a great time, but the other kids got tired before I did and decided to head back to our spot on the beach.  I continued to play in the water by myself for quite a while longer.  Well waves don’t hit the beach in a straight line, so over time I had drifted down the beach a ways from where we had camped our stuff.  When I finally decided to come in, I found myself standing on the edge of the beach, looking into a sea of blurry people. 

Oh my God, I have no idea where I am.

I walked straight ahead – not realizing the thing about waves hitting the beach at an angle – but couldn’t find Tina or her family.  I started wandering around, not sure which way to look.  I thought I saw a towel that looked just like mine.  I rushed up to it, bent way over and with my face about a foot away from the towel – squinting, no less – I realized it was not mine, nor the other stuff nearby.  The person they belonged to was not amused, and I stumbled away horrified and embarrassed.

I began to panic.  How am I going to find the Gallos?  Everything is blurry, there are a bazillion people on the beach, and even though I’m 12 and should be old enough to find my way down a beach, I’m completely helpless.  I started to cry, despite my best efforts not to.  At about that point, Tina ran up to me.

“Sue, what are you doing?!?!”

“Oh my God, Tina!!”  I was saved.  She thought I was nuts, even though I explained to her that I couldn’t see without my contacts.  She had perfect vision and couldn’t begin to understand that although I was only a few yards from where I needed to be, I felt as if she had saved my life.

I will never forget that day.  The panic, the helplessness, the embarrassment – only someone as blind as me can understand what I’m talking about.  Oh sure, it makes for a funny story now, but it was pretty scary at the time.

On an Island Far, Far Away
Did you ever see the movie, “Cast Away” with Tom Hanks?  There’s that scene near the beginning of the movie where his plane crashes into the ocean.  They show Tom underwater, eyes wide open, swimming frantically to find a way out of the plane.  When I saw that movie I told my husband Bill, “If that happened to me, I’d be dead.  Even if I managed to get out of the plane, my contacts would have floated out of my eyes underwater and then I’d starve to death on the island because I wouldn’t be able to find food.”

Or how about “Lord of the Flies”?  It’s another island story where a group of school boys are shipwrecked without any adults to keep the order.  There’s that scene where the evil tribe of kids steal Piggy’s glasses.  His best friend Ralph tries to comfort Piggy, (the token fat kid of the story), but Piggy tearfully turns to him and says, “But Ralph, I can’t see!”  I totally bawled during that scene because I truly felt Piggy’s pain.  My husband Bill, Mr. 20/20, laughed at me.  Yeah well, he’s never been lost on the beach!

All this to say that this summer – 20-some-odd years after that day in Santa Cruz – I decided to get laser eye surgery.  When the doc asked what my main reason for wanting surgery was, I told him, “Because without my glasses or contacts I’m totally disabled.”  Now while the chances of me being stranded on an island without any corrective lenses is pretty slim, I have been lost on the beach.  And the truth is that without correction I am legally blind and can’t see within a foot of my face. 

Gimme an “E”
So a couple of months ago I went in for an evaluation to make sure I was a good candidate for surgery and also to make sure my eyes were in good health.  They checked my current prescription and out of curiosity I asked the tech what mine was.  I knew my contact lens prescription has been -6.25 for a couple of years now, but I didn’t know how that translated into 20/whatever.  When I asked her, she laughed and said, “When people have eyesight as bad as yours we don’t even figure out the exact numbers.  We call it ‘counting fingers’.”  Meaning, without glasses or contacts I couldn’t even see the “E” on the chart.  Literally, my eyesight is off the chart!  When people have eyesight that bad they just stand across the room and ask you how many fingers they are holding up; thus, ‘counting fingers’. 

At this point let me mention for those of you who don’t wear glasses, there’s an unspoken competition between those who do.  Like the worse your prescription is the cooler you are.  It’s weird, I know, but anyone who wears glasses knows what I’m talking about.  It’s like the person whose prescription is the worst “wins”.  Throughout my life I’ve had people often say yeah, their eyesight is really bad too, but in my head I’m always thinking, “Dude, you got nothin’ on me!”  But since I didn’t know what exactly my prescription translated into as far as 20/whatever I could never prove it.  So during my evaluation I asked the gal to estimate what my vision was.  “Oh wow, you’re like at 20/1200.”  I about fell out of my chair.  I honestly thought the -6 in my prescription meant I was around 20/600, but my eyesight was actually twice as bad as that.  Just to put it in perspective, if your eyes are worse than just 20/40, you can’t legally drive a car without glasses or contacts; anyone with a number higher than 20/200 is considered legally blind.  And here I have been walking around the vast majority of my life with a number like 20/1200!  I guess all this time I was cooler than I thought.

Next Stop, The Twilight Zone
The morning of the surgery arrived and I was feeling pretty nervous.  Bill kept telling me to “think like an Olympian” and not let anxious or negative thoughts put a shadow on the success of the surgery.  It was pretty hard to do, though.  They make you sign this waiver that’s four pages long that tells you every possible thing that can go wrong, including total blindness and losing your eye all together.  So it was a bit hard not to be a little freaked out.  When I got there they had me take a Valium and wait in a small waiting room until my turn.  They made me take my glasses off so I’m sitting there and I can’t even see the clock on the wall.  The doc walks by and says, “Hey, good to see you!” and I’m thinking, “Who the hell is that?”  I’m not exaggerating; I only knew it was him by his voice.  20/1200!!

After about 20 minutes (to let the Valium kick in), one of the nurses came to get me and tells me it’s time to go.  I got up and turned to look at Bill, but I couldn’t really see him.  I’d like to think he was giving me an encouraging look and maybe even a thumbs up, but I honestly don’t know.  The nurse walked me into the surgery room and between being blind, nervous, and the Valium I was feeling pretty weird.  I get in there and it’s pretty dark, plus everything was really blurry.  There were two nurses and the doc, and they were all wearing scrubs, those shower cap thingies, and face masks.  Music was playing and it sounded like Mexican or Latin American music, which struck me as a little odd.  They had me sit in this chair and then they reclined it back so far that my head was lower than my feet.  They put an inflatable pillow around my head to hold it still, and then handed me a yellow stuffed dog and said, “This is Shelby; she’s your friend.”  Uh, okay. 

While they were getting things ready, they periodically leaned over to say something to me and with my head immobilized all I could see were these blurry, shower-capped heads with face masks moving in and out of the picture.  There was this machine over my head, presumably the laser, and there was this reddish-orange light that was constantly blinking with a ring of blindingly bright white light around it.  They told me to just keep looking at the orange light in the middle of the circle. 

They put a patch over my left eye, and started to go to work on my right eye.  First they put numbing drops in, and then they taped my eyelashes out of the way.  Then they told me they were going to put in the “eyelid-spreader” which would hold my eye open (wider than I ever thought was humanly possible, I might add).  Then the doc told me he was going to put on the “suction ring” which I assume was to further immobilize my eye.  The ring went on, and it felt like someone was pressing on my eye so hard that my eyesight started to black out.  The doc told me it’s normal for everything to go dim.  Then I heard this buzzing sound as they tell me they are “cutting the flap”, which is literally a flap of eye skin.

Now remember, all the while it’s dark, it’s blurry, I’m loopy on Valium, Latin music is playing, spooky shower-capped heads keep popping in and out of my line of view, the doc and the nurses keep talking to me in weird soothing voices saying things like, “Good job Susan, great looking flap”, and all the while I’m clutching Shelby like she’s the only thing that’s keeping me from completely freaking out.  The whole thing felt very Twilight Zone and surreal.  In fact, it felt like I had been abducted by aliens and they were performing medical experiments on me.  As I laid there wondering what I had gotten myself into, I knew it was too late to back out so I kept telling myself, “For God’s sake, don’t move your eye so they don’t screw it up!”

After the flap was cut they took the suction ring off and the dimness immediately went away.  Then they flipped the flap open and flushed it out with drops and things got even blurrier (which I also didn’t think was humanly possible).  Then they told me to continue looking at the flashing light as they started the laser.  Things didn’t look any different, but I could hear a snapping sound, kind of like the sound of a gas stove that won’t light.  This went on for at least 30 seconds.  Then they lowered the flap back on my eye and used this mini-squeegee thing to smooth it all out.  The doc tells me we have to wait for the flap to adhere, so we just sat there for a couple of minutes while he hummed to the Latin music.  Once he determined the flap had adhered, they took the eye-spreader and everything off my eye and taped it shut so they could do the other eye.  Good God, I had one more eye to go!!  The second eye went just like the first, and in all the whole process was done in about 15 minutes.

Small Miracles
Now contrary to popular belief, I couldn’t see instantaneously.  I must admit the experience was a little anti-climactic in the sense that I half expected to open my eyes immediately after my surgery and say, “Hallelujah,
I can see!!”   It’s actually more of a process than that.  Right after the surgery it was clear that my vision was way better than 20/1200, but things were very milky and hazy at first, and my eyes felt like they had been through Hell.  None of it was painful, per se, but the whole thing was quite creepy and unpleasant.  Kind of like a trip to the dentist, only on your eyeball (which only adds to the freakiness).  The doc told me to go home and sleep as much as possible so my eyes could rest.  They had me put on these ski-goggle looking things and then put grandma sunglasses over them.  I’m sure I looked lovely.

Bill took me home and I slept for about four hours.  When I woke up I opened my eyes and said, “Whoa!”  I could see.  I could tell it wasn’t quite 20/20, but by God I could see.

For the next few days my eyes were pretty sore, red, puffy, and somewhat scratchy.  My eyesight continued to fluctuate over the following week as my eyes healed, but each day I could tell my vision was getting a little sharper.  At the end of the first two weeks the doc checked my vision – 20/20, baby!  I never thought I’d see the day.

Happily Ever After Contacts
In all honesty, life without contacts is not a whole lot different than life with them.  Once you get used to contacts you don’t even know they’re there, so not having to wear them hasn’t drastically changed my life.  The change is a subtle one, and it’s only in certain moments that I really notice it.  Like when I’m in the shower and I can actually see my legs to shave them, or waking up and being able to see the alarm clock.  Not huge monumental accomplishments, but they’re things I can’t remember ever being able to do. 

Beyond that, though, is the peace of mind that comes with knowing I’ll never be lost on the beach again.  You can’t put a price on that, and it’s something only people who are also “off the chart” can truly appreciate.  Ol’ Piggy would be proud.

Copyright © 2002 2008 Susan B. Metters.  All rights reserved.

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