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Going Blind

Aug 02, 2016 09:11PM ● By Michael Harris
By Michael Harris

I recently learned I’m going blind. My first reactions were rather strange. Instead of fearing the potential dire consequences, my first reactions were, "My, isn't that interesting?" and “How ironic.” Interesting and ironic indeed!

As a professor of optometry, I've spent the past 50 years training young doctors to detect, diagnose, and treat eye ailments. I take delight in seeing my students understand the vital role they play in helping preserve their patients’ vision. But the lessons I taught them could not save my own vision.

Several weeks ago I noticed some rather strange visual phenomena. While watching television and drinking out of a glass, the screen became distorted out of my right eye. I didn't think much of this and assumed it was due to some optical interference from the glass. When it continued after I put the glass down, I became concerned.

I went to see my optometrist the next day. When he did a routine vision test and covered my left eye, the chart was completely distorted out of my right eye.  I couldn’t even see the “Big E” (the 20/200 line, the threshold for legal blindness). My first thought again was, "Isn't that strange?" Then, I knew this wasn't just some transient reduced vision that could be corrected with a new prescription.

The central vision wasn’t just blurred; it was distorted in such a way that an "O” looked squashed, with the top part missing. A square looked like it was squeezed in on all four sides. The distortion out of my right eye was so bad that my wife's beautiful face looked like it did before she had her nose job. (If you think losing your vision is scary, you should have seen my wife’s original nose!)

As an eye doctor and scientist, I was fascinated by the distortion and the visual phenomena. As a patient, I was scared to death. Reality started to set in. What does this mean for me in the future? How would it alter or limit my life? What new challenges would I have to face and overcome?

I've known for some time that I have age-related macular degeneration (ARMD), a hereditary disease that can destroy central vision. In fact, it is the most common cause of irreversible central vision loss in the elderly. But I’m not elderly, and I've had the dry type of ARMD, which generally progresses rather slowly and leads to reduced vision but not necessarily blindness. Unfortunately, the macular degeneration in my right eye had become much more severe and has indeed destroyed that eye’s central vision entirely. 

My first concern was driving. Right now I see well enough out of my left eye to drive, but what would happen if the ARMD in my left eye progresses as it did in my right eye? Then my vision wouldn't be good enough to pass the standard DMV driver’s test. And, interestingly enough, I just made a down payment on the new Tesla Model 3, due out in 2018. Now I’m hoping I get the car while I’m still able to drive! 

So, what are my options if worse comes to worst? With a restricted driver’s license, I still could drive locally to the Y, library, and local restaurants. But in the absence of a license, how would I get to my favorite haunts? There's always Uber and the kindness of strangers. I also could hire a driver or purchase an electric bike or Segway. Hopefully, it will be some time before I’ll have to consider these options. By the way, when will self-driving cars be available? 

Other concerns about losing my vision relate to my ability to continue doing various activities I enjoy so much. Will I still be able to read and write my book review column? Will I still be able to perform my duties as a Pleasant Hill councilmember? The often lengthy and detailed agenda packets are a challenge to read with normal vision.

Will I be able to read stories to my grandson? Enjoy sports on TV and go to the movies? Recognize my friends when I see them on the street? Use my computer and iPhone? Enjoy my workouts at the Y?

And how will losing my vision affect my ability to enjoy the national and international travel that Dawn and I love so much? Will we still be able to visit adventurous and mysterious places and enjoy their sights and sounds? What limitations might I encounter?

How will this affect my relationship with friends, colleagues, and students? Will my personality change? I consider myself a rather friendly, optimistic, outgoing, gregarious guy. Will this change as I face the adversities of going blind? Will I lose my sense of humor?  I sure hope not.  I've always relished a new challenge. So I'm looking at this loss of vision as an opportunity to learn more about myself and my abilities to cope with adversity.

When thinking about my new vision difficulties, never once did I become angry or ask, "Why me?" or “Is God punishing me for some past sin?" This makes no more sense to me than asking “Why me?" when things are going well. Perhaps my attitude has been influenced by one of the most valuable books I’ve ever read, When Bad Things Happen To Good People by Rabbi Harold Kushner.

Like Kushner, I don’t hold God responsible for my loss. It makes more sense to believe in a God who "hates suffering but can't eliminate it" rather than a God who causes suffering for no apparent reason. I should not be asking “Why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this?” That’s an unanswerable, pointless question. A better question is, “Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?” And that's exactly what I intend to do!

I've been a rather lucky guy, given the wonderful and healthy family and friends I have. While I've had my aches and pains and minor injuries, I've never suffered anything that was life threatening or severely limited my activities. The prospect of going blind has really put everything into perspective. The other annoyances of growing old no longer seem as formidable as they once did. In fact, they now seem like minor inconveniences. 

As my vision diminishes, will I be more sympathetic to others with disabilities? Will I have more empathy for the elderly? Will I truly appreciate all the wonderful people and things in my life? Will I become a better person?  I sure hope so.

As I’ve grown older - and hopefully wiser - I realize more than ever that life is a great adventure, filled with challenges and opportunities. As I face this new chapter in my life, I look forward to overcoming the challenges it presents by finding new ways to make a difference in people’s lives. As always, I remain optimistic about the future.