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The Eyes Have It

December 8, 2009

Two days before Thanksgiving, something odd happened in my right eye. I swam laps at the pool, and as I walked out into the bright morning, feeling vigorous and virtuous, something shimmered in my right peripheral vision. I blinked, I rubbed, I shook my head. It didn’t go away. Hmmmmmm, I thought. Bodies are complicated machines, they do funny things sometimes. Stay calm.

We went to Chicago and spent five days with David’s family. The patch in my vision kept shimmering, on and off. My eyeball felt sore. Still staying calm, but starting to worry. What was this? Stress? Migraine? Or something scarier, like a brain tumor or multiple sclerosis or imminent blindness? My mind doesn’t deal in minor league mishaps, only in death and worst case scenarios. (When I was 18, my first serious boyfriend used to call me a ‘panic merchant.’ I have no idea if that phrase is a common bit of English slang — he was a Brit — or if he made it up, but it is still an apt moniker, despite years of trying to be less anxious. Although trying to be less anxious is a counterproductive bit of business.)

When we got home, I managed to get an appointment to see an optometrist. I have perfect vision, so the usual battery of tests is still novel to me — the sudden blast of air in your eyes to check eyeball pressure; the stinging drops to force your pupils open, the better to shine a blinding light into the most sensitive reaches of your eye-caves; the strain on your orbital muscles to hold your eyes locked in extreme positions.

Dr. Gibbs asked me where I grew up. I said Massachusetts. He didn’t say anything, so I asked him why he wanted to know. He said that there is a fungus endemic to the Ohio river valley called Histoplasmosis capsulatum, which, when it gets in your body, can land on your retina and do bad things there. He said that I had a couple of tiny scars on my retina on the nasal side of my eye (which is for your peripheral vision, confusingly), but that they looked old, and not like active infection sites. (The whole histoplasmosis thing was interesting but a red herring, because I don’t think he thought my scars were caused by the fungus. He didn’t know what had caused them.)

He said that the shimmering was probably an issue with my vitreous humor, the jelly inside the eye. I asked him how often he had patients come in with weird and unexplained vision issues, and he said at least once a week, and he was only one doctor. So pretty common. I asked him, sheepishly but determined to air out my worst neuroses, if my symptoms could be those of early MS or a brain tumor. Nope. So that was reassuring. He said he didn’t think it was really necessary, but that the opthalmology nurse would call me to make an appointment with an opthalmologist, which would probably not be for a month or so. But to call if my symptoms changed or got worse.

Dave was away in Eugene for work, so I walked my unfocused self home, car headlights a golden blur in the blue dusk, and then lay down on the couch with a massive headache and a sense of relief. I have scars on my retina. But apparently it’s not a big deal.

That was Wednesday. The shimmer keeps shimmering, sometimes worse, sometimes less so. I notice that at night, in the dark, the shimmer turns into a black blotch. Like a blind spot. And then on Friday, I start seeing little white sparks. Not a lot. But occasionally one will go off, like a tiny firework. By Friday evening the shimmer is bad, the sparks are flaring sporadically and I have decided that I definitely have a blind spot. All assurances from the good doctor not two days ago are for naught. I am frightened, verging on hysterical. I am too upset to go out with Dave and Jesse to see a show at Mississippi Studios that turned out to be amazing. I take a xanax and entomb myself under the duvet.

By Saturday lunch, Dave has decided that the only way I can be calmed down is to see the doctor again. My symptoms have gotten worse. Plus, the sparkles are new. So I call Urgent Care (Can I just say that I am a big fan of Kaiser Permanente? Their system is the easiest to navigate healthcare I have ever had, because it’s all centralized in one location, and whatever doctor you see has your entire record right there in the computer. Hallelujah.) I try not to cry while I’m talking to the nurse, and after being on hold for a minute or so, she tells me that if I can get there “quick quick like a bunny,” Dr. Landon can see me.

We live less than two miles from the hospital, so like two little rabbits we race over there, and a security guard escorts us from the main building over to the locked and darkened secondary building, where I see Dr. Landon. She runs the same battery of tests, but thankfully, this time, only on my right eye. She sees the same spots/scars on my retina that Dr. Gibbs did. But manages to explain a little better that the vitreous humor can catch on these scars and pull on the retina, which causes the shimmering and sparks. The main thing they would be worried about is a retinal detachment, which happily is (so far) not happening. I ask again, embarrassed at my own paranoia but still determined to have it out, about MS/brain tumor. I am again happy at her outright dismissal and even the hint of “wow, you are so ridiculous” attitude. Because it means my worst fears are unfounded, and that’s what I want them to be.

She gives me a referral to see a retinal specialist, and a brochure entitled “Floaters and Flashes” explaining all about the vitreous humor and the retina.

My heart is light as we leave.

Dave says I look like a crazy lizard person with my one dilated eyeball. We take a cell phone picture in the elevator to document it.

Mmmmmmm, what a flattering photograph.

We celebrate by going shopping, for a dining room table and a guest bed for our new house. The dilation lasts for hours and hours, and makes me feel seasick. I keep covering my right eye with my hand, and wishing for a pirate patch. We laugh and laugh and Dave makes delicious fried catfish for dinner. I’m so relieved that it doesn’t occur to me till the next morning that even if nothing terrible is happening to my brain, that if this shimmer-fest is my new normal vision it kind of . . . sucks.

If you’ve never had glasses or contacts, let alone any vision issues, you don’t even think about your eyes or your sight as a thing unto itself. As a medium, as a process, as a complex piece of machinery that can malfunction. The world simply unfurls perpetually on the movie screen before you, unoccluded, with nothing apparently mediating between you and, well, everything.

So when something happens to the projector or the screen that interferes with the seamless rolling of the movie, rupturing the illusion, making you aware that you’re sitting in a darkened room while an elaborate, elegant, but not fail-safe contraption is chugging away inside the bones of your head to bring you the world as you have always known it, it’s unsettling.

I want to go back to taking my vision for granted, as I always have. But am also newly grateful for it, for the minute-by-minute miracle of seeing, and gratitude is never a small thing, even when it’s a consolation prize.

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