Note: Today is Gary’s birthday. In this blog post I highlight one of the many times he came through for me. He remains one of my heroes. Happy Birthday, my love!
I have written before about problems with my eyes (here). That entry recalled the semi-successful attempts to correct my strabismus (crossed eyes) when I was very young. It took two surgeries to improve the alignment of my eyes, but it was not the end of the story for me and eye surgery, not by a long shot.
I graduated from SUNY-Binghamton in May of 1980, at age 20, and went straight into a master’s program in public administration and policy at Columbia University. The first day of the semester there was a meet and greet session. There were about 25 students in the program. We sat in a large circle and went round giving our names and undergraduate background. Several people introduced themselves and said, “I went to the The College.” I was baffled. I looked around for clues. I couldn’t tell if others were as perplexed. I’m not sure how it was revealed, I’m pretty sure I didn’t ask, but somehow I learned that “The College’ referred to Columbia. Okay, message received. I was intimidated.
Some public administration programs are designed to accommodate part-time students, with classes offered in the evening. Columbia’s was not. It was a full-time, two-year program that was demanding. I started experiencing a lot of migraines as that first semester unfolded and the stress mounted. To rule out a change in my eyesight as a cause of the headaches, I saw an ophthalmologist. Unrelated to the headaches, the doctor found that I had ‘lattice’ of both retinas. Lattice, it was explained, was a thinning and weakness of the retina. At that time the recommendation was to have a surgical procedure where they froze the retinas to keep them from tearing. This finding was revealed in mid November. The doctor told me I could wait until the December break for the procedure.
While I had some anxiety, I got through the remainder of the semester and completed my classes. The appointed day for surgery arrived and my parents took me from our house in Canarsie at the crack of dawn to Manhattan Eye and Ear Hospital on East 64th Street. I was used to coming to the upper east side for eye care, but the old red brick hospital looked menacing in the dim morning light and my memories of the nausea caused by anesthesia the last time I had eye surgery heightened my nervousness.
We did the necessary paperwork and I was prepped for the surgery. Next thing I knew, I awoke with my eyes bandaged. I heard voices by my bedside. I felt someone touch my foot. “Hey, it’s Steve,” I recognized my brother’s voice. “How ya doing?” he asked. “I think I’m okay.” I managed to croak out some sound, my throat was quite raw. “Just wanted to say hi and tell you to feel better,” he said.
My Mom and Aunt Clair were there, too. They explained that my Dad, after the surgery had been successfully completed, went out to get some air. He was so relieved it was done, he was overcome with emotion and needed to take a walk. My father never did well with hospitals. Ever since visiting his mom after her neck surgery when he was a young man, he would breakout in a cold sweat whenever he went to a hospital.
It was odd waking up and having both eyes covered. As I emerged from the cloud of anesthesia, a wave of intense nausea swept over me. Damn that anesthesia! The nurse gave me ice chips, which helped. Gradually I started to feel better.
A friend from graduate school, Sally, stopped by to visit later that afternoon. She had no expectation that my eyes would be bandaged. Although I could not see her, I sensed her discomfort. I tried to make small talk. We chatted for a few minutes; I made some kind of joke about getting pity points on our next test. Each visitor stayed briefly, except for my Mom and Aunt Clair who were there for the duration that first day.
I was moved to a semi-private room. There was a woman, Marcia, recovering from a detached retina, in the bed next to mine. She was a Manhattanite and quite a bit older than me. I had a lot of visitors. Marcia did not. When another uncle or aunt came to visit me, Mom and Clair would move over and visit with Marcia. They offered to share the grapes and chocolates that they brought for me.
After spending that first day completely bandaged, I was given pinhole glasses to use for mealtime. The glasses were thick black plastic with just a small dot of an opening, where the pupil of the eye would be, so I could see what was directly in front of me. Other than when I ate, both eyes remained covered. I think the idea was to minimize the movement of my eyes so the retinas could heal. I had to turn my head to see anything other than what was straight ahead of me. After I finished eating, back to the darkness.
At the time of the surgery, Gary and I had been together for just over a year. He was working at a lab at Columbia Presbyterian at 168th Street on the west side of Manhattan while I was attending graduate school. Each day after work, he came to the hospital to visit. Clair and my mother would go get some coffee or visit with Marcia when he came.
The first time he visited Gary brought me a fragrant rose that sat in a vase on the nightstand next to the bed. Although I couldn’t see the flower, I could surely smell it. There seemed to be some truth to the notion that your other senses sharpen when one of them is compromised. The second time he visited he brought two cassette tapes and a portable cassette player with headphones. He taped two of my favorite albums, Dan Fogelberg’s Homefree and Beethoven’s 6th Symphony– the Pastoral. Such great choices! Not that I had any doubts, but a person shows who they are when a challenge is faced, like my surgery, and Gary showed himself to be incredibly thoughtful.
One night after everyone had left, Marcia was angry. “You are really inconsiderate!” she rumbled. At first I didn’t realize she was speaking to me. She continued, ranting, “There isn’t a moment of peace. I’m fed up with the noise and hub bub. Your visitors are so loud!” I apologized and said we would be more thoughtful, but I hadn’t realized we were being disruptive. She railed on at me.
Lying there, in effect blind, I was frightened. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I felt threatened. I groped for the phone on the nightstand and feeling for the buttons, I called my parents. They picked up immediately and I whispered into the phone that I was scared and explained what had happened. They said they would call the hospital to see what could be done.
I hung up and tried to relax. Marcia had quieted down by that time, but I was still anxious. A little later my phone rang and my dad explained that my room would be changed first thing in the morning. He was disappointed that it couldn’t be done right then, but they told him it just wasn’t possible. Aunt Clair, who lived in Greenwich Village, would come up to the hospital in the morning to make sure everything went as planned.
My doctor rounded very early in the morning, before 6 a.m. There’s nothing like being awoken to bandages being removed, your eyelids pried opened and a penlight flashed in your eyes. That morning the doctor and two other hospital staff members arrived at the usual early hour, along with Aunt Clair, to examine and then move me.
Aunt Clair was not an early riser; if left to her own devices she was a true night owl. She set a series of alarm clocks to get up for work, and sometimes she still slept through them. There were many times when she and my mom sat up talking late into the night in the living room of our Canarsie house and rather than go home, Aunt Clair would sleep on that same couch. In the morning I could rattle around in the kitchen and take my breakfast with no fear of waking her up. Even though she lived in Manhattan, not that far from the hospital, it was quite an imposition for her to get to the hospital before 6 in the morning. But there she was.
Aunt Clair gathered my things, including my rose and cassette player, and followed us to the new room. This one was a single. They got me settled and I went back to sleep.
I was in the hospital one final day. My eyes were no longer bandaged. The following morning Dad picked me up to take me home. I was given eye drops and instructions about symptoms to look for that would indicate a problem. Dad drove me home and I got into my parent’s bed and put on the TV. Dad went back to work. I would be home alone for at least three hours until my mom returned from work. I tried to find something mindless to watch.
I felt strange, oddly unbalanced and queasy. I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t realize that being in bed with my eyes covered for four days would leave me feeling weak and disoriented.
As I tried to concentrate on the TV, I had some brief flashes of light and in the corner of my field of vision things looked wavy, like seeing through a puddle. Then it went away. I wondered if I imagined it. I wasn’t sure if these were the symptoms I was supposed to be concerned about. The flashes and the visual distortion came and went very quickly. I waited a while and when it recurred a couple of times, I called the doctor’s office. I described what was happening and they told me it sounded normal, as long as the flashes and visual changes didn’t persist. I was relieved when my mom got home. Fortunately, the rest of the healing went uneventfully.
I learned some things from this surgical experience. First, and most important, when I needed help, my family and Gary could be counted on. I would always want them in my foxhole. Marcia was not so fortunate, she appeared to be alone in hers.
I also gained a greater appreciation for my eyesight. I have always loved the beauty in the world – man-made or natural – but now it was heightened. I didn’t want to miss seeing the Grand Canyon or the Alps or the great cities of Europe, or the ordinary things like the sunlight on a forsythia bush in early spring. I felt an urgency to make sure I didn’t take my vision for granted. I carry that lesson with me still.