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Prime Time: A jolt, a setback -- and the long road to recovery (maybe)

There are those few special times when what is important in your life is suddenly distinguished from the far less important. A jolt can do it. Indeed, there are jolts of many kinds that immediately change the ho-hum daily routine into an instant realization of what is truly significant.

These jolts come too often in the form of accidents, alas, and whether it was dumb or freakish, it makes no difference as the outcome of the accident is the same. It happened. Accept it, even if the outcome can be unfortunate and at times devastating. Regardless, it happened. It's over. Live with it; you have no other choice. (It's still not easy.)

Who, for example, while crawling out of bed, pays one whit of attention to the hands on the alarm clock, unless of course you can't see the hands. Who even gives a passing thought about reaching for that first cup of coffee unless of course you can't find the handle. You reach for the handle and it's not there. Who picks up the morning newspaper only to be startled by not being able to even read the headlines?

At this point it may even seem perverse, if not cruel, to wish that everyone might lose even partial eyesight for just one day. That's all the time needed to realize that the normal life you've been living is suddenly no longer normal. That what you see, or rather don't see, makes a monumental difference in what had been just mundane living. So yes, the old saw is true; you don't miss something until it's gone. Your whole life can be instantly changed by a jolt, and not changed for the better -- like getting sudden vision impairment.

The obvious intent of the above "wish" is of course to make readers more fully aware of the importance of good eyesight. Indeed, clear vision is a miracle! Appreciate it! Treasure this monumental gift. Protect those eyes. They're the only ones you'll ever have.


As the reader has by now determined, the jolt, the accident, the vision loss happened to this writer. It happened just before Thanksgiving of last year. While exercising with a device that had a long fat spring that one pulls up and down, it was after the last extra strong pull that there was a slip and the bottom of the spring snapped back and hit me hard, directly in my left eye. The immediate response was surprise but this changed quickly when observing the blood falling on the floor. When the blood at last stopped dripping, there soon came new facial changes: black and blue coloring around a swollen, closed eye.

The jolt had happened at 10 a.m. By 1:30, I was in the office of Bemidji ophthalmologist Mark Shanfeld, who, after checking, summarized the situation succinctly: "Not good ... but reparable." By 5 p.m. I was in surgery at the hospital. The blow had been so strong as to dislodge a cataract lens and tear the sac that held it. More than an hour later, Dr. Shanfeld's expertise had made the necessary repairs. It seemed to be over, but it wasn't, as afterward the doctor added the warning that more might be wrong, but it was too early to tell as there was yet too much blood in the eyeball. So come back in two weeks, and let's hope. . .

one-eyed adjustments

The early wondering and waiting period included some happenings that only much later one might find amusing (I wasn't laughing at the time). This new distortion threw off exact locations (like finding a coffee cup handle) as to where objects really were -- or weren't.

To illustrate further: I was asked to pour the wine at a neighbor's home where we had been invited for dinner. In my attempt to follow her request, I completely missed the wine glass.

Eating became a problem. The question at meal time was not if I'd spill but when and where and how much of the dropped food could be recovered. At a dinner with friends at Cattails, I safely ordered a hamburger, knowing that at least I could find that on a plate. And approaching any street curb required tiny mincing steps forward before making a fuzzy determination on how far down was the street before gingerly stepping down.


The doctor's warning and worry were true. His second inspection two weeks later confirmed dreadful news: "You have a detached retina."

Those last two words make most people wince, and for good reason; it's that bad. It was now time to act quickly; time to arrange for a delicate operation by a retina specialist at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

The surgical team was led by Dr. Dara Koozakanani, the three-hour operation done at the Phillips Eye Center. The procedure included inserting a special needle into the eyeball and filling it with a silicone oil. Following the surgery, Dr. K gave the first of several orders: "Go back immediately to your hotel room and lie face down and stay face down the rest of the day and all of the night. Be back in my office tomorrow at 8:30."

Although the operation itself was over, the problems were hardly over for the patient. Indeed, the adjustments were starting anew. Dr. K explained what to expect then and in the future, emphasizing over and over again the slowness of the healing process. So think of healing not in terms of days or weeks but months, he said. Only gradually will some sight return in tiny increments (he was right); there will be no "aha!" recovery (right again, alas).

"Gradually you will begin to see outlines and forms but the objects will not be clear, always blurry. The full extent and the degree of sight- recovery will not be known until the oil is removed from your eye. That oil extraction will not be done until after four months, maybe more. Depends. And you may get full recovery or you may get none, or something in between. It's a 'maybe'".


And so began what in some ways has been the hardest part of all: the waiting, the hoping, the wondering, the worrying; the needed adjustments of simply trying to get through each day with impaired vision.

When one eye works fine and the other works a quarter-fine, at best, there are problems: like dizziness, like loss of depth perception, like loss of balance when walking or even standing. Each day began with the concerns of expected stumbling and what-will-I-knock-over-today?

And always the waiting. At first, day after day; then week after week; and then month after month. Like any injury, you learn to live with it. That's easy to say but not always that easy to do. Then again, there's no other choice, so you learn to live in this woozy world you've been thrust into, the one that does not allow you to drive a car, to attend a movie, hardly even to go out after dark. (Moving safely up and down outside steps at dusk required an arm to hang onto.) Watching TV required always holding one hand over the affected eye -- until I finally got a black eye patch. (No, I was not pretending to be a pirate.)


Amid all this confusion there have been many kind and consoling words from family and friends, but the most curious consolation of sorts came from an acquaintance who informed me that in all this I've been lucky!

Huh? How's that?

"Well, consider that you can't see, you can't hear, so you're lucky that you're not a horse or they'd shoot you."


Under conditions when you're a semi-invalid stumbling and fumbling around, one can only wish fervently to have a helpful and understanding friend, and in this situation I was most fortunate as my wife, Judy, met totally the definition of "helpmate." The past six months, she has done the driving, run the extra errands, extended the needed arm, even read to me, including the entire book "Giants In The Earth," all the while remaining positive and supportive, while at the same time issuing the needed gentle reminders to be patient.


Now at the end of this too-long article, I wish that I could write that it has a happy ending. Don't know yet. Maybe. Maybe not. We may get that answer in a couple of weeks, as on May 24 the chief surgeon, Dr. K., will extract the cortisone oil from the eyeball. Only then will we learn about the ending, maybe.

Editor's note: Art Lee wrote the first part of this column in the first week of May. The following was written in the first week of June.


The outcome. Operation No. 3 on the injured eye was performed May 24; the major task was the removal of the silicone oil. The next morning, the big bandage was removed.

The result: I can see again -- a little. Not perfect, certainly, but I can at least see something. From nothing to something is good! -- with the added notation from the doctor that improvement will slowly continue. Meanwhile, adjust. Sight itself is a miracle; to lose it and then get any back at all is a kind of miracle in itself. Anyway, the worst is over; time to start a new life -- which is a pretty good trick when you're 80 years old.