Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Can't turn a blind eye to this

If you have ever heard the expression, “turn a blind eye to …,” then perhaps you are familiar with its meaning, which several online dictionaries define as deliberately disobeying or ignoring unpopular orders.

The idiom has its roots in a rather humorous incident, if the United Kingdom-based website The Phrase Finder is correct. It attributes the expression to Admiral Horatio Nelson, the British Navy legend who was blind in one eye.
As the story goes, Nelson was in the midst of a battle he knew he could win when his commanding officer, in a nearby ship, used signal flags to order him to back off. Nelson chose to use his blind eye to look through a telescope toward the signal flags, thereby telling one of his men he never saw them.

Nelson sailed on to victory and simultaneously gave birth to the expression “turn a blind eye to” and set the stage for the evolution of the term “plausible deniability” among many politicians and other folks of lesser character.

On a day some years ago, I became personally acquainted with the “blind eye” expression after having spent a portion of my afternoon photographing the inside of a historical landmark in a small Western town.

As I was walking out, I saw a man tossing a flying disc to play catch with his dog, a boxer, in a grassy area in front of the facility. I pulled out of the parking space and was approaching the street when the Frisbee sailed over the top of my slow-moving Datsun 210. I stopped when I saw the dog chasing after the disc and headed toward the driver's side of my car.

The dog crashed into the left front door of that old car, which had a dull orange paint job that many mistook for primer. The impact of the dog against the car, of course, startled me. I quickly got out, alarmed and concerned for the dog – and wondering what kind of reception I would get from its owner.

But other than the yelp of surprise upon impact, the dog seemed fine. His owner seemed a nice enough person – a Wyoming native – who drawled, “Sorry about that – you blind-sided him.”

He chuckled a moment before explaining, “He can’t see out of his right eye.”

So the dog was watching the Frisbee with his left eye and struck the left side of my car with the right side of his head and body.

Never one to – that's right – turn a blind eye to a pun, I told my boss how a dog had blind-sided me while I was out. Two puns, one story, unbearable agony for my boss and anyone else in earshot.

I was quite pleased with myself.

Never would I have imagined then that I one day might face the possibility of blindness in one of my eyes, let alone face the risk of impairment in both.

In October 2003, however, at the ripe young age of 44, I had a blood vessel burst one night in my left eye as I slept: One or more “abnormal” blood vessels had burst, filling the interior of my eye with blood. Blood is an opaque liquid, meaning light cannot pass through it.

Strangely enough, I did not notice it at first when I awoke. About 10 years earlier, I had an accident that resulted in a humongous “floater” in that eye. Consequently, vision in that eye was like superimposing the image of an amoeba under a microscope over everything I viewed.

That eye always seemed slow to adjust from the darkness of sleep to the light of a new day, which I always attributed to the floater. But on this day, by the time I’d shaved and showered, my sight in that eye still had not adjusted. So I closed my right eye and held out my hand in front of it.

Milky whiteness with just a trace of skin color poking through here and there.

If you have ever seen photos of the elk or bison strolling around the geyser fields of Yellowstone National Park in winter, you will have a pretty well-defined idea of what my vision was at that point.

My ophthalmologist recommended Wheaton Eye Clinic, my primary care physician got the paperwork rolling, and soon I was seeing Dr. Jon Gieser, a retina and vitreous specialist.

He ordered me to stop working as the tests and doctor visits got started – an ultrasound was done to try to determine if there had been a retinal detachment in that eye. There were other examinations. But the blood that obscured my vision looking out also prevented the doctors from looking in, and ultimately, surgery was settled on as the best option.

Ultimately, Dr. Gieser would perform a vitrectomy to suck out the vitreous – a jelly-like substance that fills the inner eye – cauterize the burst and some deformed blood vessels – and replace the jelly with saline solution, which in time the body would replace once again with vitreous.

I awoke as the doctors were finishing up and was alert enough to realize I had a needle in my eye. Dr. Gieser had forewarned me I might awaken a little early and that it was important that I not move. Now I understood why. And by golly it stung. A lot.

As a result of that injection, I now am able to respond with firsthand knowledge when someone uses the expression “better than a sharp stick in the eye.”

Ah, puns. But I digress.

For six months, my eyesight gradually improved, and I was grateful. But then my vision started getting hazy and soft again.

But one of the possible side effects of a vitrectomy is accelerated cataract growth. Because the eye is slow to heal after trauma or surgery, and because that also increases the risk of complications during any subsequent surgeries, Dr. Gieser recommended I put off having cataract surgery for 20 years or so.

He did not expect it to grow as swiftly as it did, however, and so earlier this year the lens in my left eye was replaced with another one. (April 11: Restored sight adds clarity to job search). It represented a huge improvement, but vision in my left eye is not perfect because of the earlier stroke and surgery.

Then, about a year ago, I started to notice that the vision in my right eye, my good eye, was starting to get fuzzy. I called my doctor and was referred to yet another specialist, who prescribed eye drops that must have been made with gold, because a bottle the length of my thumb had a copay of $90. The top half of the bottle was the cap.

It turns out the affliction in my right eye is called uveitis. It is a swelling inside the eye of the tissue beneath the retina. Its cause can be related to an autoimmune disorder, although it usually occurs in healthy people, and frequently the cause is never determined.

And of  course, it can cause vision loss.

The eye drops seemed to stabilize the problem, and in late April or early May, I was taken off the drops.

I noticed the blurriness was back after I received the new, post-cataract surgery lenses for my glasses several weeks later.

Since then, I’ve seen two different eye doctors, the most recent being Dr. Gieser, who said he was not happy with the sudden turn in my right eye.

By default, now, my left eye appears to be my stronger eye, although I’d be hard-pressed to use it to read a book or thread a needle.

I’m supposed to see another specialist, but that likely will be a week or more away. In the meantime, I find myself thinking about things like that one-eyed dog (been there, done that, don’t want a repeat). I also recall that, when I was a kid, I loved to pretend being the blind detective Mike Longstreet, portrayed by James Franciscus Jr. in the TV crime drama, Longstreet. But of course that was child's play, and no matter how cool it might have seemed then, Longstreet was not an editor, a writer.

I am not particularly worried about the future – I have so far survived any number of failures in my life as well as a layoff that has gone far longer than I would like. God will get me through this, too.

But more than anything else of late, I do find this unsettling.

So the next time you’re out walking, stop and look at the flowers in your neighbor’s garden. Adore your children with your eyes. Look longingly, and openly, at your spouse. Relish that next spectacular sunset, or even the fairly mundane ones.

You see, one day you might not be able to look out from inside your head and see the little miracles around you, the splashes of color in a butterfly's wing; the sparkle of sunlight on dew; the dazzling display of light on water, dappling a pier or wall with its reflection; or the subtleties of hue that make the bass or pike every bit as beautiful a fish as a rainbow or brook trout.

God forbid, but if that happens, all you will have left to "look at" are your memories, so build a store of them now.