When I hailed a fire engine mistaking it for a bus (it didn’t stop but apparently I was given a cheery wave), and a week later very nearly pruned my cat’s tail as it looked suspiciously like a dead branch of a shrub then I knew the time had come to have my cataracts removed and, at the same time, my high myopia corrected.
Five years previously, I had been advised by the ophthalmic consultant Jonathan Dowler, at Moorfields Eye Hospital to wait until I had ˜nothing to lose” and that phrase kept haunting me as my vision grew murkier. I had still got something to lose, and knew that the chances of doing so were statistically increased in extremely high myopes like myself, but life is full of risks and we would cease to live meaningful lives if we pondered too long on them all. So, was I really going to postpone this potential to see properly until I had lost the last vestiges of sight, by which time I might have lost other faculties too? My dilemma was increased by the fact that I didn’t have a spare; vision in my left eye had become extremely distorted due to a Foster Fuchs Spot; new blood vessels develop in an attempt to provide the back of the (very elongated) eye with oxygen, but despite their good intentions they rupture, leaving one with just peripheral vision.
Surgery techniques had advanced tremendously and Mr Dowler must surely have been confident of a good outcome, but I had difficulty in updating my mind-set. For a long time, I just thought of the risks. I thought of how shattered I would be if I lost my sight, and whenever I did research on the web in the hope of allaying my fears, I just turned up more grizzly statistics about retinal detachment and the problem of satisfactory re-attachment in people with degenerative high myopia.
Colour deterioration is obviously a gradual process, and apparently some people are better at making a mental compensation than others. On a sunny day, all too rare this Summer, I still read the sky as blue, because I knew it was, yet overall the effect was like looking at the world through thick, lumpy gravy. The colour scheme was depressing and I was having an increasing number of accidents because of reduced acuity.
I was still working as a painter, but had introduced wax-resist and collage so that there was a tactile element in the process. I was frustrated at not being able to work more efficiently, but I never seriously wondered how differently other people would view my work. Sighted or not, no artist can really know that, at the best of times.
I had worn increasingly thick glasses from the age of three and a half, and suffered the usual stigma as a child of having milk bottle lenses (Why is it that thick glass is such a sensuous material, until you stick it on someone’s face when it becomes the least sexy accessory imaginable?) Later, contact lenses gave me increased confidence and markedly better vision. The early hard lenses often gave me agonising corneal abrasions, but the new softer ones were a huge improvement and many people were unaware of my increasing disability. Only when I gave up driving (it had become as impressionistic as my painting), became dependent on others in little ways and did a Masters Degree focussing on perception, did others become aware of my disability.
And so, on 25th July 2007, I sat nervously on a bed in Moorfields Eye Hospital, still agonising over which eye should be first. With a combination of wisdom and humour, Mr Dowler helped me to make the decision. The right eye, with the thickest cataract but without the Foster Fuchs Spot would be done first.
My pupils were dilated and I was walked through a seemingly endless maze of corridors which became whiter and more ethereal. The nurse who accompanied me stopped to pick up my ticket, and noted that we needed theatre No.8. She counted as we passed each opening off the main aisle, and I half-expected the lens implants to be called something like Knuplf; but if this was an ophthalmic Ikea warehouse, was I about to be told that they were out of stock of the clear ones and I would have to make do with black?
Finally we reached our destination, I was greeted by a cheery anaesthetist and invited to choose the level of sedation, from nothing through to complete oblivion an impressive range of cocktails. I opted for being awake and aware, but not minding what was happening. I vaguely remember asking, “Is that you Mr Dowler?” and as a hairnet was put on my head, a disembodied voice answered “No, I’m just a passing hairdresser from Walthamstow.” My only fear from that point on was that I might giggle as the critical incision was being made.
I remember being under a blue tent, the occasional request for an instrument, what sounded like free improvisation music (apparently the ultrasonic removal of the cataract) and then, after what seemed like four minutes but was actually more like thirty, “Well done, it’s over!” After a brief spell in the recovery room, I was taken back to the ward (the luxury of a trolley this time). There was no pain, no nausea, no fear; relative lucidity and ravenous hunger! A reassuring visit from Mr Dowler, clear instructions about removing the dressing in the morning and taking regular eye drops, a hearty supper and then home.
That night was like Christmas Eve as a child, mystocking being the pad and shield covering my right eye. It was tantalizing, but I was tired and it had been a long day, so I slept well enough. In the morning, I carefully removed the dressing as instructed and slowly, slowly opened my eye, unwrapping the best gift I could have wished for. At first, the glare was unbearable, but gradually I became accustomed to the light and was overwhelmed by the colour and clarity of the room around me. My sight was probably better than since I was a small child. From then on it has been one discovery after another: trees have individual leaves that one can see from indoors, my garden is really very beautiful, my little tabby cat has exquisite markings, I can see the green parakeets in the pear tree and I can paint my toenails. I saw my paintings as if for the first time. I am less enthusiastic about my wrinkles and the kitchen floor.
There are millions of people who, thanks to the skill of surgeons and scientific developments, enjoy an even more dramatic improvement in their vision, but this is my little miracle and I cannot imagine being more inspired, more enthralled or more grateful.
Note: We have been praying for Joanna and this is a note sent by her on her progress along with grateful thanks for our prayers and praise.