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Self-potrait 1988

I was seventeen when I had the opportunity for a surgery that would either correct or confirm a visible defect. By that time I had worked for years to overcome the “diploplia” that was gradually making my right eye, the near-sighted one, more and more dominant, and my left eye, the far-sighted one, less and less effective. I had worked on muscle control exercises, used more and more prisms in my eyeglasses, changed lenses every few months, and tried bifocals, but I was still losing ground steadily in the muscle control of my eyes. Surgery was the only option left, if I was to avoid being cross-eyed and losing the use of my left eye.

Many people have had to deal with that physical defect at a younger age than I did, and many have not had an opportunity to correct it, but, whatever age a person is, the social costs are present, and a teenager, hoping for a public career, finds those costs daunting. I was not looking forward to eye surgery, which came at the end of my senior year in high school, but I was dreading the loss of eyesight and visible attractiveness more.

Eye surgery to correct the muscle arrangements for both eyes involved a three hour procedure with my eyes removed from their sockets, the ophthalmology surgeon reported, a two-day stay in the hospital, and a three to four week recovery with my eyes bandaged.  It was my first surgery. I remember being nauseous afterward; my reaction to the sodium pentothal used for anesthesia was extreme. I don’t know what I said to the nurses, but I’m sure it was the truth. There was a general concern that the violence of my reaction was not helpful to my eyes, but I couldn’t do a thing about it. When I was returned to my room, I had a roommate, who happened to be a shooting victim in serious condition. I couldn’t see anything, of course, but his moaning and gasping did keep me awake throughout the night. It was a good time to pray, and his condition was clearly more critical than mine.

In the morning a tray was placed before me, and I felt my way through the various items on it. I poured the carton of milk mostly into a glass and proceeded to try to drink it, finding that it was actually cream provided for the sticky mass in the bowl, making my gag reflex return. My roommate was transferred to intensive care, I was told. All in all I was happy to go home the next day. I worried about the results of the operation for the next three weeks, until the bandages came off. The whites of my eyes were still red, but it was so much easier to focus and see without effort that I was greatly relieved.

The surgeon was pleased with the results, and, even though they weren’t perfect, they were so much improved that I no longer had to worry about loss of vision. In fact my eyesight steadily improved for many years.

I still wonder what my life and career would have been like without that surgery and its successful results. Like anyone with a visible disability, I suppose I would have adjusted and done my best to overcome the reactions of people around me and tried to compensate with other abilities. I am thankful that I didn’t have to.

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