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My new eye
February 11, 2009 - Rick Chatenever
The hardest part to wrap your mind around is that you’re going to be awake through the whole thing.
If someone — no matter how skillful — is going to cut a tiny hole in your eyeball, remove the old lens (essentially by dissolving it and sucking out the remains) and then put a new artificial one in, are you sure you really want to be “watching”?
Cataract — a clouding of the lens inside your eye — is a term I always used to associate with people who had blue hair and used walkers. But now we have a new term for old people: It’s us.
Actually, boomers is the hipper, more market-friendly way of putting it, especially since all sorts of things that used to be considered signs of aging are being rebranded as trends.
Dr. Jivin Tantisira of Aloha Eye Clinic has done thousands of cataract surgeries over the last few years. He does more than 60 a month. Ever since I was diagnosed as needing one, it seems like everyone I know knows someone who’s had it done.
The difference between blue hairs and boomers is that when we do something, it’s cool. AARP Magazine loves to put billionaires in blue jeans on its cover. We’re not going gently down this path, especially when there’s surgery available to brighten the darkness. Remember, the word before boomer used to be baby; it was no accident that Pepsi chose Bob Dylan singing “Forever Young” for a Super Bowl commercial this year.
But meanwhile, back at my eye …
Having a cataract is like having a permanently smudged windshield. When I learned I had one, I began a series of exams at Aloha Eye Clinic in Wailuku. Dr. Tantisira is a jovial but well-informed and thorough kind of health provider, happily offering, if you’ll pardon the expression, insight into the whole process.
His assistants were helpful, too, as they put my face into a series of contraptions to test what I was seeing. In one I saw purple pinwheels. In another, I couldn’t see the sailboat that was supposedly bounding out there on the ocean. One device mapped my eye, coming up with something in primary colors that looked like a cross between a fried egg and a topo map of Borneo.
The assistants made me appreciate my sense of sight just by being in my field of vision. They reminded me of the title of that Robert Altman movie, “Dr. T and the Women.”
All of which provided, if not comfort, at least distraction from remembering that the good doctor was going to be digging around in my eyeball in the near future.
And then the day came. Last Thursday morning I went to the pool for what would be my last swim in a month. You have to guard against infection after surgery, when the eye is healing. “Next time you come, the water will be clearer,” said the lifeguard.
Then I drove over to Aloha Surgical Center to get my new eye.
The whole visit took less than three hours. No gown, you do it in street clothes. It’s very efficient, although the staff does what they can to keep things light and cheery.
“Be sure you get the right eye,” I told the nurse. “You’ve got a smiley face marked over it on your forehead,” she assured me.
Dr. Tantisira came by, happy and reassuring as ever. That’s when I realized I hadn’t been paying attention before — or maybe had repressed the information that I would be conscious during the whole thing as he went into my eye, took the old lens out and put the new one in.
He would make a tiny incision. He would use ultrasound waves to emulsify the old lens, then remove the remains. He would put in the new lens folded up, like a tiny windshield sun protector. It would pop out inside the eye. Since the new lens had astigmatism correction, its placement was minute and crucial.
“I’ll do my best,” he assured me, “just like you do when you write your column.”
“Yeah, but when I make a mistake in my column, it’s just spelling a word wrong,” I answered.
And then we were in the operating room. Spanish guitar music played lightly in the background as they covered my good eye. Drops kept my other eye dilated, some sort of apparatus I couldn’t see kept it open. Dr. Tantisara said to let him know if I was going to sneeze. “Don’t move,” has new meaning when you’re measuring in millimeters.
It was the job of the anesthesiologist — who reminded me of a wise owl behind his surgical mask —to keep me painless and awake. There was something in the cocktail “to take the edge off,” which must have been why, when all these bizarre colors started erupting right before my eye, it seemed more fascinating than alarming.
I remember yellow, turquoise, orange, flowing like molten liquid. Without a lens in there, you have no idea what you’re seeing.
Or, maybe it’s that you’re not seeing an idea at all that feels so new and strange.
It took around 20 minutes. No pain, just the tiniest bit of itchiness. They put a patch over it, and called my wife to pick me up.
The next morning, I went back to the clinic to have the patch removed. And sure enough, there was someone I knew, right there in the wating room. With all the eye patches, the place looked like a pirate’s convention.
“What did you see?” my friend asked. Those bright colors made us feel like members of a secret society, beholders of a shared vision.
Because of the correction in my lens, my old glasses don’t work anymore. It will take a while for my eyes to settle down to be tested for a new prescription. Which means, as I write these words, I’m not wearing any glasses at all.
It’s not that my new eye is perfect by any means. Just way better than expected.
The day they took the patch off, I was driving again by evening. That weekend, I went to two movies —”The Pink Panther” and “He’s Just Not That Into You.”
Critics have panned Steve Martin for not being Peter Sellers, and have criticized “He’s Just Not …” for not being “Sex and the City.”
I don’t agree. I enjoyed both movies.
Hey, I’ve got this cool new eye. The last thing I want to do is go looking for problems.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com
• More information on cataract surgery is available online at www.mayoclinic.com/ health/cataract-surgeryMY00164 or locally at Aloha Eye Clinic, Ltd., 877-3984.
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