Monday, April 11, 2011

Restored sight adds clarity to job search

Regaining something you've lost and taken for granted can be exhilarating, particularly when it returns in better condition than it was when it disappeared.

That is what happened last week when sight was restored in my left eye thanks to the skills of Dr. Brian Heffelfinger of Fox Valley Ophthalmology in Elgin. But the experience also renewed my hope as I search for a new job.

Seven years ago, I had a stroke in my left eye. The blood vessel that burst filled the inner eye with blood, which is opaque, meaning I no longer could see – well, I could see. If you have ever seen one of those winter pictures taken near Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park, in which the outlines of an elk or bison are just barely visible through a milk-like fog hovering over the geyser field, you'll have an idea of how little of my vision was left.

That led to a surgical procedure called a vitrectomy, in which the surgeon, Dr. Jon Gieser of Wheaton Eye Clinic, cauterized the burst blood vessel and removed the jelly (called vitreous humor) inside the eye, which he replaced with a saline solution. The eye over time gradually replaces the saline with new vitreous humor.

And for months afterward, my vision slowly improved, and Dr. Gieser urged me to remember that the eye is a delicate organ whose healing occurs slowly. But one of the risks associated with that surgery was that it could accelerate growth of a cataract that was in its earliest stages in that eye.

Under normal circumstance, I would not have had to worry about cataract surgery until my 60s or 70s. But the cataract took off like wildfire, and six months after the surgery, I began to lose to the cataract the gains I had made as my eye healed.

Also as a result of that surgery, I would now faced greater risks with cataract surgery, and Dr. Gieser suggested I put off any such procedure in that eye for 20 years or more. Of course neither one of us anticipated the speed at which this cataract developed.

So for much of the past six years, I have been progressively getting blinder in my left eye. By last fall, most of what I saw in that eye were shapes and shadows, sometimes a little splash of color as well. I also essentially had lost most depth perception as a result of it. If you do not know what it is, depth perception is what enables our two eyes, working together, to gauge how near or far an object is from us.

I still could drive, but I pretty much abandoned playing ball or Frisbee with my kids (think of the old joke, “The ball kept getting larger and larger when suddenly it hit me!”)

But late last fall, Dr. Heffelfinger suggested it was time to get the cataract taken care of – assuming Dr. Gieser would sign off on it. He did, but warned me that the damage from seven years ago might still have a lasting effect on my vision. So I started laying plans in my mind to have the surgery done after Christmas. But of course I was laid off Dec. 2, and my plans swiftly evaporated.

COBRA seemed like a good thing when Congress enacted it, but it's expensive. The exiting employee must pay the full cost of the coverage. Sun-Times Media has provided good coverage and paid a generous portion of the premium for many years. Had the company not gone through a bankruptcy, I might have had a shot at continued coverage via COBRA. But during the bankruptcy, the company first cut and then altogether eliminated the severance package it once offered.

That left folks like me, who once would have had roughly 32 weeks of severance pay to fall back upon, walking away with little more than accrued vacation pay – not nearly enough to cover COBRA, let alone to pay the mortgage.

So I waited until we could get family coverage through my wife's employer. Even then I hesitated, but my 80-year-old parents prodded, gently offering to pay the increased copayments under the new plan. And so on April 6, I had the cataract removed.

The next day, the eye patch came off at Dr. Heffelfinger's office. True, there is some distortion, part of which may be related to the damage from the stroke some seven years ago. I was expecting that – actually, I had tried to be pragmatic about my expectations. I did not want to be disappointed with the results of the cataract removal.

Let's say my pragmatism underestimated the result far more than I would have guessed possible. But there were a couple of factors I had not considered.

The first was that the cataract's acceleration after the first surgery interfered with my ability to see improvement just as the healing was kicking into gear.

Second, Dr. Gieser had told me eyes take a long time to heal, and it has been almost seven years since the cataract first began obscuring my vision in that eye. That is nearly seven years of healing time I had not taken into account.

So as my eyes adjusted in the minutes after the patch came off, I watched in awe as the clarity of my vision advanced. Closing my right eye, I stared in wonder at everything – the grain of the wood doors, the detail of the cabinetry in the exam room, the texture of the carpet.

Each detail emerged as if I was seeing for the first time, and nearly overcome with emotion, I thanked God for this tender mercy of being able to see again with such clarity in my “bum eye.”

A few minutes later, Dr. Heffelfinger walked in the door, asking, “How are you doing today?”

I actually don't remember which adjectives I used – awesome, great, fantastic, but I am certain I added the phrase “extremely grateful” to the mix. His face brightened a bit as he admitted, “It's nice to hear that once in a while.”

I had felt the same way when Dr. Gieser fixed me up seven years ago, although the results then were not quite as dramatic.

That said, I am grateful to both of these physicians and the work they've done to preserve and improve my vision. They're both fantastic, very personable doctors.

And I am grateful for my parents' support and for how the timing turned out. Had not my parents nudged me every two or three weeks or so, I might have waited until a new job had come along, and taking time off for surgery after landing a new job might not be the best thing. Instead, the surgery is out of the way, although a second procedure may be required that would essentially be icing on the cake in terms of vision improvement. Even so, I am ready to work, and that rocks!

I also am grateful for the perspective this adds to my search for new employment, likely in a different career.

I've felt frustrated of late, a feeling shared I am sure by many, many other job seekers. It escalated Friday, two days after surgery, while I attended a local job fair, where attendees were urged to bring lots of copies of their resumes. I went to Elgin Community College with a folder full of resumes, high hopes and a nervousness about meeting and making a good impression upon any prospective employers.

I found a noisy gym filled with tables and scores of people. I noticed many were about my age or older, and these folks in particular seemed to walk through the maze of booths with a hungry, intent look in their eyes. The expressions on their faces ranged from hints of anger to worry to desperation. I thought I understood.

But as I made my way through the 90 or so booths representing various companies, I faced a growing realization that, at least here – in this place, on this day – there was little demand for someone of my expertise. I handed out five resumes, and two of those I practically begged the persons at those booths to take. I began to experience some of the desperation I thought I had understood before.

Thank God for the surgery just two days earlier, because it helped me over the weekend, as I processed my job fair experience.

Remembering my restored sight, reliving the sense of awe and wonder I experienced when the patch came off, gives me something to look forward to when I do find work. I truly do believe God has something in store for me that will be much better than Mr. Pragmatic here can envision for himself.