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I can see clearly now

I can see clearly now

As our society gets older, more and more people are suffering from vision problems. Eye surgery clears up some, but it can also bring on new ones.
Graham Roumieu cartoon, optometrists' officeIllustration by Graham Roumieu

I remember my first kiss. I was eight and it happened in the backyard of my ­Ottawa home. The kisser was a boy called Lawrence. Shortly after, an eye doctor prescribed glasses, and Lawrence stopped waving in the playground (although now I could see him ignoring me perfectly). The glasses begat a five-year dry-spell in my love life. As soon as I convinced my parents I needed contact lenses, I was jabbing myself in the eyes and back onto the dating scene.

I’d worn contacts for more than 40 years when I again started having trouble seeing. I could tell my long-time optometrist was sick of my persistent questions and stalking behaviour, when he put up a sign, “Not you again,” and so I moved on to another, and another, until I was diagnosed with cataracts. I freaked out because I thought only old people suffered from them.

I was terrified of cataract surgery, but the writing was on the wall – in fact, for me, it was doubly on the wall. I had double vision and blurring, both characteristic of cataracts. Signs were double-imaged; people always came in two’s. My night vision was the pits. The last straw was wearing glasses over my contacts as I peered through binoculars at an Alice Cooper concert. And I was only11 rows back from the stage!

The frightening spectre of real vision loss hit me, though, during the week I had to keep my contacts off for my pre-op eye test. I was forced to wear an old pair of glasses through which I could barely see. I was dependent on others for drives, unable to read or see the TV, and I felt very helpless.

Suddenly the fear of vision loss hit me with full force. Turns out I’m not alone. ­According to a Canadian Association of Optometrists survey, 89 per cent of Canadians ages 50-64 fear vision loss more than losing their money, memory or ­libido. That suggests that almost half of the Review’s 106,000 readers will relate to what I’m saying here.

Once I started questioning friends, I discovered one had suffered retinal detachment; another was going blind with retinitis pigmentosa. More people than I thought had vision problems; we just weren’t talking about it. We should have been.

Dr. David Foot, author of Boom, Bust and Echo, predicts an enormous crisis in vision care when the baby-boomers hit their 70s. And medical schools, including the one here at Queen’s, teach that of the four major eye conditions associated with aging – macular degeneration, cataracts, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy, only cataract surgery gets rid of pre-existing visual impairments, while other treatments merely lessen or defer the problems.

So I booked in for cataract surgery, which, believe it or not, actually turned out to be a breeze. Yes, they sliced into my eyes, but a tranquilizer and all that eye freezing stuff, along with the pink and green lights I saw, made me think I was taking the acid trip I’d never had the guts to do as a teen. After removing my cloudy cataracts, the doctor ­inserted implants – basically permanent contact lenses, in my eyes.

The good news was that suddenly my blurry, antique-coloured world was clear, albeit with a bright blue tinge.

Unfortunately, what I saw was also old. And dirty. Cataracts had achieved the same effect as the gauzy lenses that photographers use for fading Hollywood actresses.

To my horror, I’d aged terribly. The fat on my stomach was now old as well as fat. I’d developed a neck wattle that I feared might only disappear if I pulled it back and fastened it to my hair with masking tape.

When I surveyed my house with my new super-vision, I noticed a yellow streak stretching the length of the upstairs hall rug. Suddenly, it dawned on me why the dog hadn’t asked to go out much during last winter’s cold spell. As I looked around, I saw dirt on the walls, scuff marks on the floors, and dust on everything. Suddenly I lived in a pig sty with no escape, no excuses, because now I could see perfectly.

The good thing is that I got to see, ­really see, my daughter Julie when she graduated from Queen’s last spring. It was a beautiful sunny day, tinged with blue (from the surgery), but even more special for my having suffered through years of blurriness. I wondered if Grant Hall had actually been redecorated.

With that tiny taste of what it might be like to lose my visual freedom and then suddenly reacquiring it, I felt luckier than ever, lucky enough to forget the wrinkles and the dirt and to focus on the big picture.

[Queen's Alumni Review 2009-4 cover]