A few weeks before it happened, I suddenly stated seeing lots of little black dots. I was no stranger to floaters – little squiggly lines that float around in one's vision – but I had never, ever had black dots. (Heard of, yes. Seen, no.) Whether they had anything to do with what followed I can not say for sure, but the timing was interesting.
Things started in earnest during my lunch break, one searing summer day near the end of November. (And if summer in November sounds odd, it is a good bet you do not live in the southern hemisphere.) Shortly after leaving work to collect my post office box mail, I noticed a colour distortion in the upper right of my vision. The last time with a problem like that was just before the lens fell out of my sunglasses. This time the lens felt firm enough to my touch, and as the problem was not annoying enough for me to take the sunglasses off to fiddle with them in the street, I ignored it the rest of the way to my post office box and back. Indoors again, it was with a feeling of relief that I took my sunnies off to check out the problem. Sudden end to feeling of relief. The colour distortion did not leave with the sunglasses! I put the things back on and took them off again. This tactic did not work. The problem was not with my sun glasses. The problem was my eye. Inside my eye! Fixing it would not be a do-it-yourself job.
A couple of years earlier I had the lenses inside both eyes surgically replaced. As the new lenses corrected my natural short-sightedness, they were a bit different from what they replaced. My crawling suspicion of the moment was that one of them, due to thickness and heaviness or whatever, might be peeling away from the retina.
The optometrists where I used to get my glasses was nearby, so I went straight there. The sign in the window read "Closed. Open again at 1:15." My lunch break was due to end at 12:30. I decided not to wait. There was a second optometrist shop in the same street ... it was just a lot further away. As it turned out it was also open. The bloke serving explained that although he could sell me a pair of sunglasses or a new set of frames, he could not actually do things like check people's eyes. What he could do was make an emergency appointment for when the optometrist next came in ... the next day. To me, this seemed to be a little bit on the late side.
Back at work, where the problem was still not going away, I started going through the phone book looking for more optometrists in the area. Explaining my situation to the boss, brought the useful observation that it was hot and it might help to sit down and relax for while, and maybe "put some water on it". By this time the area of colour distortion had grown larger, and in the upper right of my vision straight lines were no longer straight. They did a little zig-zag, like a symbol on an electric-wiring diagram.
There was a third optometrist's shop in the street, as it turned out, a new one. I was thoroughly out of lunch hour by now, but told the boss I was going to the optometrists anyway. "Do you think that's really necessary?" Yes, I did.
The new place was not only open, but actually had an optometrist in it. This was more than I had been gearing myself up for, the way things had been \ going. I explained about the cataract surgery in my recent past, that yes it was rare for someone my age to get cataracts (lucky me), and my fears that the new vision-correcting lens might be tearing free. The optometrist gave me the good news that the lens in the problem eye looked still firmly in place. The bad news was that what it was attached to – the retina itself – was pulling away. "Interesting about this 'rose-colour' thing. Most people see it as a black curtain." I was given a referal to the same people I had seen about the cataracts.
"You think I should go today?" I asked, as back at work things were busy
enough for everybody even when we were fully staffed.
"I would go straight there from here. Are you driving?"
I had come to work by bicycle. After assuring them at work that yes, it was necessary for me to leave straight away, and yes I would bring in a medical certificate, I headed off. The eye clinic being in walking distance of where I live, the best idea seemed to be to drop my bike off at home on the way. In the interests of sanity, I rode with one eye shut. This was annoying, but nowhere near as annoying as keeping both eyes open. The images being reported from each eye were starting to separate.
In the forty-five minutes it took to travel home, something became hideously apparent. I had never noticed it before with two eyes backing each other up, but there was something wrong with my right eye. Things did not stay crystal clear on a constant basis. Details kept getting less clear, then clarifying again. No cinematic term can properly explain it. Things did not blur, lose focus, or distort. Nor was it my imagination. Whatever the matter was, it had taken a problem with the other eye for me to notice.
By the time I was back home, the annoying rosy distortion had vanished. At some time during my ride, it had been replaced with a jet black curtain. All vision was screened out on the right-hand side, looking through my left eye. Lots of stuff was visible to the left. The problem with this was that it was all constantly to the left. Moving my eye to the side to focus on something, as instinct demanded, was eternally futile. The blackness moved when my eye moved. I was not totally blind in that eye, I just could not see anything with it.
After checking in at the eye clinic, while waiting for someone to see me, I realised my reading glasses were sitting back home along with my bike and backpack. Apart from lines in big print, like titles, the waiting room magazines were unreadable. I spent time watching the goldfish in the tank in the centre of the room. When the lighting was right, certain bright objects did appear inside the blacked-out side of my vision, dark red, and further down than where my right eye was saying they were. It was a weird kind of double vision. And with my rignt eye, the distinctness of things kept right on varying. My grandfather had had a glass eye for longer than I had been alive, and never seemed bothered by a monoscopic view of the world. He had never had any problems with his only real eye either. At a time when my vision needed a good spare eye for backup, things were leaving a lot to be desired.
Somebody saw me, after a while. Drops were put in both eyes, then I had to wait for the drops to take effect. Both eyes were looked at.
"It's a detached retina all right. I don't know if you have ever noticed, but there's a partial retinal detachment in the right eye as well."
An appointment was made for me with a specialist in the city, for about an hour later. The railway station was nearby, so all I had to do was catch a train to the city, get off at Parliament station, and I was practically there. Things finally slowed down round about here, as it was getting late and the necessary surgical operation would not take place the same day. There was no guarantee my vision would ever be as good as before, so did I want to leave things as they were and think about it? Think about what? I could not see anything with my left eye.
The operation was in the St Vincent's Eye and Ear Hospital. As this was an emergency, I got to skip the waiting list. Arrive at the hospital early in the morning. Eat and drink nothing beforehand, from midnight onwards. I had been awake through the cataract operation, but the doctor was pretty firm on the idea of my being unconscious for this one. I would also be staying overnight. Longer, if things did not go right.
I arrived at St Vincent's bright and early. I had been in hospitals for emergency reasons before. The first time was when I was in high school, and was hit by a mysterious pain in my side so intense it was impossible to stand upright. ("Straighten up Bruce. I don't care how uncomfortable it is, you're looking stupid.") The teacher drove me to the hospital, where the mysterious pain faded away in the two or three hours it took to see a doctor. When someone in an oncoming car heaved a beer bottle through my windscreen a few years later, it only took an hour after arrival at the hospital to be checked for a possible concussion. More recently, after dislocating my toe due to tripping over a camera tripod, it took three quarters of an hour in emergency to see someone competent for such a problem. This time I barely had time to find a seat in the waiting room before my name was called. After the paperwork was settled there was barely time to sit down again and reach for a magazine (I had remembered my glasses this time) before I was called through.
Remove your outer clothes and put them in this bin, you can keep your underwear on, hello I'm your anaesthetist, we'll just stick this in the back of your hand and make all injections through that little bulb so you won't feel like a pincushion, we will not be using gas, hello I'm the surgeon, we'll wheel you through now.
I woke up laying on my side in a hospital bed, and the slow part set in.
When they took the patch off my eye the next morning, all I could see with the problem eye was smears of colour. A bubble of gas had been injected into the eyeball, and it was a matter of waiting for the eye to fill with fluid again, while the blood corpuscles removed the gas. This would take months. The most important question was "Do you see any flashing lights?" This would indicate the retina was going places again. but the answer was always "no" and so everybody was happy.
When in an upright position, always look downwards so the bubble is against the back of the eye. Eyes straight ahead mean the gas bubble is pressing against the front of the eye, and this will hurt. (Interesting advice, as I had just come out of a lengthy problem with neck pain, and had been advised to keep a straight posture as much a possible.) Do not sleep on your back either, as the bubble will then exert all its might on the front of the eye. Sleep on your side. (How? Once asleep gravity would exert itself and I would go either face down, with tender eye against the pillow, or onto my back, which was a painful no-no.) As it turned out, with these incentives my subconscious quickly adjusted, and I found myself going to sleep and waking up on my side.
My almost-complete second novel remained almost complete. The months with my neck problem had meant I could not sit at my computer for more than ten minutes before agony set in. Now that I could sit normally, I could not comfortably look at the screen. After years of forcing myself to cultivate a habit of writing regularly, I was not only losing the habit, I was getting punished for trying to carry it out. I was able to keep the anime screenings page up-to-date before being driven from my computer, but that was about it.
I was off work until the new year. With the Christmas rush, this made me really popular at work.
But for a $500 excess, my hospital fees were covered by my Medicare cover. My new Medicare cover, started barely six months before. Medicare smelled a rat, and wanted me to prove I had not been already walking around with semi-blacked-out vision before taking out the cover, and waited half a year before pretending it had just happened and gone into hospital. Fortunately, due to the cataract operation, follow-up appointments, and my original optometrist who had taken a look at the surgical work out of sheer curiosity, I could.
As time plodded by, the bubble shrank. At first it actually seemed to be expanding. Then, as a rim of comparative clarity formed around the blur, I realised that what I took to be air was fluid and vice versa. What threw me at the start was the way the bubble dropped to the lower part of my vision when I looked ahead, and centred when I looked down. I finally realised that what was going on was was my having the laws of physics and optics rubbed in my face. The image falling on the back of the eye is upside down. The brain flips it the right way up. (There was an experiment I heard about in the 1970s where people wore glasses that turned things upside down. After a few weeks they started seeing things the right way up. Experiment over, they took the glasses off ... and had things look upside down again for the next few weeks.) I had things the right way up, but with a "heavy" bubble. It floated at the bottom of my vision, moved right when I titled my head right, left when I tilted left, and centred into the middle of the curve of the inside of my eye when I looked down.
Over the time the bubble grew smaller, occasionally broke up into a blob of smaller bubbles, grew more skittish (probably the effect of Brownian motion from the surrounding fluid) and finally, by the end of one particular day, was no longer there.
Vision remained ratty for a long time. Looking at a letter on the noticeboard, on my first day back at work, it seemed to have been printed on a poor quality dot-matrix printer. (Taking my hand away from my right eye, it suddenly became evident that it was just a normal letter.) For a long time there was no such thing for my left eye as a straight line - they all looked wavy. Weirdest of all, things looked thinner than through the right eye. I would often lock onto something with my left eye, then open my right eye, and try to work out what I was seeing next. The image I was seeing would become normal width, to match my right-eye view. I can not describe how it did this. The image did not stretch out, it did not dissolve to normal width, it did not cut. It is involved with the perception of what my eyes were reporting, but I cannot describe the transition.
I went back to St Vincent's as an out patient over the next few months, reporting on the absence of any flashing lights, and reading more and more lines of an eyechart until vision stopped improving, well short of my right eye's standard.
As for the partially detached retina in my right eye, the doctor decided to leave it alone, as it appeared to be stable.
Almost exactly one year later, I began to get an incredible number of floaters in my right eye. It was unusual enough to warrant an unscheduled visit to the eye doc, who promptly booked me in for an operation two days later.