Imagine walking down the sidewalk on a nice summer day, enjoying the scenery and the sunshine all around you. Now imagine taking a visual picture of what you see in front of you and copying it. Take that copy and paste it diagonally up and to the right so that it overlaps half of the nice beautiful scene you are looking at. Now take that second copy and strip all the detail out of it and cover it with a thin layer of milky water. While you are at it, put a big smudge on anything that ends up in the centre of the picture and add distortion to anything that might be a straight line. I have this milky, distorted, hologram version of the world superimposed over my proper vision now and it sucks. And that's not even the worst part, when I walk or drive I get the sense that the shitty hologram world is moving at me faster than the clear real world. For example, every morning when I walk from my parking spot to my office there are a series of tree shadows across the sidewalk and a set of two manholes that I walk over. As I approach the shadows and the manholes, I see double of everything, but as I get closer and closer to the real objects, the amount of the displacement of the second blurry pictures gets less and less to the point that they almost become one object as I pass over them. The fact that my double vision gets worse the further an object is away creates the illusion that the world on the right of me is coming at me twice as fast as the world on the left of me even though they are actually distorted pictures of the same thing. It's as shitty as it sounds.
My brain has tried its best to tune out the right eye and only pay attention to the left clear picture, but its capacity to do so waivers as I get tired or move through areas where the sun is low on the horizon on my left side. Think about how hard it can be to drive on a sunny winter morning when the sun is low in the sky and quite glaring. Well I have discovered that it is quite handy to have two functional eyes in this situation instead of one because as soon as the bright sun hits me from the left, my brain tries to use my right eye again, until it realizes that oops you are functionally blind in that eye. Most of the time I keep both eyes open, but in situations with glaring light from the left I am forced to shut the right and make the left endure the brightness.
When I say that I am functionally blind in my right eye, it is a hard concept for most people to understand. What does that mean? It means that if I close my good eye and just look through my right one, I can see the basic layout of the room that I am in, but I can't rely on using the vision to do anything productive. It immediately makes me feel wobbly and drunk. I physically cannot walk in a straight line using just my right eye because the damage to my macula seems to create an active distortion to everything that I see. I still have a hole in my macula which has resulted in me losing the centre of my vision, so although I may see you standing in front of me, your face would just be a brown smudge. If I wanted to see any words or letters with my right eye I would have to hold the paper about 1cm from my face and move it around to try and catch the letters with my peripheral vision. So the centre of my vision is gone, the picture as a whole is distorted and quite milky in nature. I have seen specialist after specialist and one of the first things they like to do is ask me to cover my left eye and tell them what I can see on the eye chart. I have to discouragingly inform them that I can't even see the chart that they are talking about and then my vision test gets downgraded to 'how many fingers?' at about an arms reach. It wouldn't frustrate me so much, but after they do their surgery, or procedure, they always put the chart back up on the wall with the expectation that I will be able to see it and I never have. Sad face.
People ask me why don't you wear a patch and my answer is sometimes I should and sometimes I do, but I have endured so much with my eye that I am not ready to give up on it yet. I close it when I really need to, or cover it up with my hand when the second picture is too distracting, but I believe in the neuroplasticity of the brain and the body's capacity to heal itself. I think the best chance of my eye improving is if I keep using it, so I do, even though it sucks every day. I wake up every day with a headache and go to bed every night with a different headache, but I have pushed through.
Although I am functionally blind in my right eye, I do still have vision in it that my brain can and does use. At the moment, the vision I do have is more distracting than helpful, but I hope that over time and one more surgery can shift the balance to it being more helpful than distracting. My peripheral vision is better than my central vision so I find that I prefer to be aware of the objects and people to my right more than have them disappear completely if I close my eye. Sometimes the crappy double image is more information than just the one clear picture so I find myself wanting to keep the bad eye open more often than I close it. I really have one and a half eyes and hope to graduate to one and three quarters, but have no expectation of ever regaining 'normal' two eyed vision.
Thankfully my work as a physiotherapist is done more by feel than by sight. The hardest part of my day is sitting at my desk talking to clients as they tell me their story from their chair five feet away. I try my best to focus on the clear version of them on the ground as opposed to the blurry holographic version of them that is floating up on their left shoulder. It is hard, and I hate it every day, but I am still holding on to hope that surgery number seven this fall may be able to fix it. I had a fifth surgery to repair an orbital floor fracture that lifted my eyeball back up to a more normal position, but it didn't improve my vision at all, it did, however, give me six weeks of much worse headaches. I also had a sixth surgery to give me a new lens and replace the traumatic cataract that I developed, but so far it hasn't helped my vision and again has just given me more headaches.
It is hard to not be defeated when I can only say that one of the six surgeries I have had so far has yielded a positive outcome and that wasn't even for my vision. Dr. Schendel made me a functional human being again by inserting a large tube on top of my eye to help regulate the pressure, but I have a hard time seeing a silver lining in any of the other five so far. I am placing a lot of hope in my last surgery and genuinely cannot wait to be done with interventions so that I can move past hope and actually mourn the loss that I have suffered.
Last October, after my fourth surgery in two months, the best I could get out of Dr. Ma, my retinal surgeon was: "what you need is about a year, your eye will heal and your brain will figure out how to better use what it's got." Well, it has been about a year and apparently I needed more than just time because I have had two more surgeries and am on the wait list for a third that should round things out at an uneven seven surgeries and a countless number of 'procedures.'
As I approach the one year anniversary of my eye injury, I am finding myself spending more and more time reflecting on the impact it has had on my and my family's lives. I have tried my best to move forward, but almost a year later I find the whole incident is still playing a central part in my day to day life. I have returned to full time work as a physiotherapist, business owner, father of three young children, husband and semi-professional visitor of eye doctors. Our life didn't have room for this to happen to me, but it did and we have had to figure out how to make it work. It has been really hard, but I think we are surviving the journey so far.
On August 19th, 2014, I was struck directly in the right eye by a hard orange hockey ball that changed the course of my and my family's lives over the following year. I endured incredible pains, countless procedures and four surgeries in a period of two months in attempt to save my eye and my vision. My wife endured the challenge of being a single parent to a three, four and six year old while her husband and financial supporter of the family was bed ridden for three months with no real prognosis. I was forced to move out and live with my mom as a caregiver as my wife tried to juggle everything without me.
On October 27th, 2014, two weeks after my fourth surgery, I decided to return to my work as a physiotherapist for a few reasons. The main one was that I was craving some normalcy in my life after spending so long being physically and mentally incapacitated. I went from having every moment of my day being full of work and family to staring at the same few inches of floor for days, weeks and months on end while trying to recover from surgeries in various levels of pain. Even though I still had a large black gas bubble floating around in my eye for six more weeks, I felt getting back to work would help prevent me from getting depressed and/or going mad. In retrospect, I really should have waited a few more weeks, but it felt like the right decision at the time. We also needed the money because I am self-employed and my disability insurance had a ninety day rider on it, which means we went three months with little to no income living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. We are very thankful to our supportive family and friends that helped us through the difficult time.
It is a unique challenge working as a physiotherapist trying to help people in pain when they know what I have recently been through. After twelve years as a physiotherapist, I have an incredibly sympathetic and caring clientele that is concerned about my well-being for which I am very grateful, but going over my story and current status with a new person every thirty minutes all day has been one of my greatest mental challenges. I am not used to being the focus of so many people's sympathy and it is extremely hard to remain positive when you have to tell a depressing story fourteen times a day. Most people ask about my prognosis with the expectation that I will get my sight back and I have to be the one to say 'well it's not looking like it, but I still have a few more surgeries to go,' which just strings us both along and continues the trend of my eye being the perpetual centre of conversation. Leading up to surgery we get to talk about what my next one is and then after my surgery I get to share my disappointment that it didn't really help and receive more pity and sympathy. The physical battle has been tough, but the mental battle has been a more complex beast to handle.
I know I have a loss to mourn, but the way this injury has panned out, almost a year later I still don't know what I have lost because I am on the wait list for surgery number seven. I am still in it. It is an acute phase that just won't end because there is always another surgery. After my recent cataract surgery failed to give me any acuity of vision back, I have started to come to terms with the loss of the functional vision in my right eye, but I am still holding on to hope that my distracting and fatiguing double vision can be improved. Either way, for my mental health, I am just ready to be done with surgeries and want to move forward with my life instead of hanging out and talking about the shitty uncomfortable limbo that I am in. I will have a bad eye for the rest of my life, but I will not let it define me like it has this past year.
Everything is harder now. I can still do most things, but most of them are harder than they once were. The first question most people ask me is "can you still drive?" The answer is yes I can still drive, but parking is a challenge. My depth perception for how close a car is behind me when I'm parallel parking is compromised but I am learning to adapt. The world on the right of me coming at me at double speed is distracting, but I am learning to adapt. Coaching my five year old's baseball team was hard, but I'm getting better at catching balls. Pouring juice into a glass and getting a key into a key hole continue to be hard, but I'm figuring them out. One day I hope to get to my new normal, but for now I try my best to endure the exhausting process of figuring out a new strategy for a lot of the little things in life.
I wake up every morning with a mild headache and a dry irritated, goopy cornea. I spend the first five minutes of every morning tending to my eye at the bathroom sink. It doesn't feel somewhat comfortable until I have had a shower and even then it still feels like a have something in my eye. Over the past year I have had periods of time where I was on up to four different medicated drops that needed to be put in one to four times a day each, thankfully I am now down to one glaucoma drop at bedtime, but am still required to use a thick tear gel five to six times a day to keep my dry eye somewhat comfortable. I get occasional short but strong aching pains in my eye throughout the day and typically develop a gripping headache up the right side of my head by the end of a work day. Thankfully I can say that the further I get from my most recent surgery, the less painful and frequent my headaches become. I make the best of every day as best as I can because I enjoy my job, I love my family and I believe that life holds too much fun to be ruined by pain.
If you need any more incentive to wear eye protection while playing sports consider the list of things I injured from one simple shot in a pick-up ball hockey game:
- detached retina (2 surgeries)
- macular hole (2 surgeries)
- orbital floor fracture (1 surgery)
- my iris is stuck in a dilated position (live with it!)
- inability to regulate the pressure in my eye without my new valve (1 surgery + 7 needles in my eye)
- my two eyes don't point in the same direction anymore = double vision (up coming surgery)
- traumatic cataract (1 surgery)
I think that this experience has helped me develop wisdom, courage, empathy and perseverance. It has replaced some of my confidence with vulnerability and given me more compassion for people that face real challenges in their lives. I can't say that I agree with the saying 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger,' but I plan on coming out the other side with a new perspective on the world and my head held high.
One more to go!
Related Article: My Eye Injury: a physical and emotional battle