Eye time

I must’ve been asked my name and date-of-birth at least half a dozen times, and got it right in all cases. Even the trick questions, thrown in here and there, like “What’s your middle name?” and “Why are you here?” I could answer without hesitation. Hey, I thought, it’s a bit premature for dementia tests; I’m here for an eye op.

I clambered up the stairs of the double-decker with gritty determination, hanging on for dear life as it lurched forward and sideways. Yes! My favourite seat, at the front nearside on the top deck, was free (the bird’s eye view is so satisfying). Our driver, clearly on a mission, navigated the usual bottlenecks with feisty opportunism, and we arrived in very good time. The hospital building is a dispiriting spectacle. Imagine the dirty concrete exterior of cold-war STASI HQ. This, of course, is no fault of anyone working there, and, well, better a hospital, however seedy on the outside, than no hospital at all, I suppose. I limp in to join the senescent hosts of halt and maim.

A cataract takes a long time to develop, and a long time to treat. Well not really, but it seems an age. The operation lasts just 20 minutes, the whole visit, four hours. In a further 25 minutes nurses ask my name and DOB several times, check vital signs, allergies, medication etc., then drop a liquid in the eye that stings like hell and blurs my vision, before inserting a small pill, the size and shape of a rice grain under the lower eyelid. The other three and one quarter hours are spent reading the newspaper cover to cover, crosswords, Sudoku, eating a very poor example of a chicken-and-salad sandwich, going to the loo to relieve my bladder and wandering about to relieve my boredom and keep the circulation going in my legs. Hey ho: better a free operation within four hours than no free operation at all, I suppose. Well, we all know we’ve paid for it, but you know what I mean: at the point of delivery.

A cataract is a waterfall, a white water event. The disease of the cataract is so called because the patient sees as through a film of white water, though mine was more a light mist. I was inspecting a fatuously pink reproduction of an already naff painting, (an ineptly rendered Midi-farmhouse-cum-lavender cliché), when at last my time came. A kindly nurse led me to the small theatre for a couple more ID tests, and my personal confirmation that the operation was on the eye under the arrow on my forehead, the right one. “The right one is the right one.” I proclaimed for the avoidance of doubt, and of error.

The surgeon, only his dark eyes and scissored bushy black eyebrows visible under his surgical garb, reassuringly talked me through what’s what. He taped a blue disposable cloth over my face, made a hole in it, clipped some widget on my eyelids to prevent me blinking, dropped some oily moisturizer on the eyeball, then local anaesthetic, and asked me to stare directly into the unbearably bright light inside the lens of an enormous black and steel optical contraption with handles like on an old fashioned submarine’s periscope.

Ah ha. His day was different. Mine was a rare type of cataract, A Christmas-tree cataract, he observed with interest, so called, because of the colourful iridescent crystals that form within the lens are like the lights on a real one; a pretty cataract, stars in your eyes, the rainbow in the spray of a waterfall, a beautiful disease.

So to work: occasional pressure, but the only discomfort, the literally eye-watering brightness of the light I must stare at, unable to blink and forbidden to move. After a bit, it settled down as he chopped up the Christmas-tree into bits, small enough to be hoovered out, then the lens itself. What I saw was kinda psychedelic: two rectangular suns, now hard-edged against an azure sky, and a pinkish blob deforming in many ways before them as the procedure proceeded; background faint muzack and the distant voice of a woman on her mobile, remonstrating about a refrigerator. Putting in the new lens, my surgeon said, was ship-in-a-bottle via the tiny incision, just 2.5 mm long, already made, requiring no later stitch. Finally a transparent, perforated plastic shield was taped over the eye, and all was done.

A lecture on the two types of eye-drops I must assiduously deposit, four times a day tapering off over ten weeks, was delivered by the nurse who passed them over to me, and that was that. Joan picked me up and even as we drove home I could see out of the side of the eye-shield that everything was beginning to sharpen up.

That evening I lifted the eye shield for a proper view of the garden; better and better; next morning, joy, and a clarity I cannot remember. Result: the right patient, the right operation on the right organ, the right eye, and the right outcome: like my vision in that eye has been photo-shopped with brightness, contrast, and intensity suddenly and wonderfully enhanced.

The thanks I gave you, Mr Surgeon and your colleagues, when I left, turn out to be so very well deserved; it’s modern medicine magic, to be sure.

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