The law of diminishing retinas

Last Tuesday night, as I was backing out of a parking space, I turned my head to the right to look behind me and spotted a meteor cutting a brilliant line through the sky. Which was weird, because there was no sky in my field of view.

I put the car in park to consider this, then shrugged it off and looked over my shoulder again, to continue backing up. The same meteor fell, off to the right in my peripheral vision. As I turned my head to face forward again, a suspicious theory crossed my mind. Knowing that two data points do not a trend make, I tested the theory with another about-face. Same result.

Pretty neat trick, to be able to control the heavens with a turn of my head. I chalked it up to a growing exhaustion and enjoyed it all the way home, making meteors fall on every tree, building, or plot unfortunate enough to attract my attention as I drove. I went to bed soon after I got home, forgetting the meteor shower in a bid for badly needed sleep.

Wednesday morning, I woke up even more tired then I’d felt on Tuesday night. It was a three- or four-snooze-button morning, but I finally sat up on the edge of the bed, stretched, and stood up. And nearly collapsed as the room spun around me.

I sat down and waited out the dizzy spell, then got ready for work as usual. The morning passed without incident, but I started having more dizzy spells at the office, and left early. I managed to keep the car from spinning on the way home, but when I looked at the sky, I noticed a lot more floaters than I usually have.

I’m talking about those little, amoeba-like shadows that people see inside their eyes; I’ve had them as long as I can remember, and used to think of them as cataracts. It turns out they’re called “floaters,” and I had a lot more than the four or five that I usually see. There were thousands of them. Any time I looked at a blank canvas of sorts – a large area of a single light color, like the sky or a wall – I saw thousands of tiny circles, lined up in a grid. It was like one of my floaters had exploded, and splattered itself across my entire field of vision.

I was too shocked to test this at the time, but it turns out all of them were in my right eye – the same one that had been creating meteors the previous night. But I didn’t think to determine this; rather, all I could think was, Yikes.

I took a long nap as soon as I got home, and when I woke up, I was still seeing a grid full of floaters on the ceiling. I tried not to worry about it, again chalking it up to how tired I still was. I’d been going full-throttle for a long time, and looking at an uptick in commitments over the coming month. My schedule had bested me, and I dragged myself through the rest of the evening thinking I’d probably die of exhaustion long before the amoebas in my eyes could kill me. So I went to bed early again.

When I woke up Thursday morning, it took longer than usual for my eyes to focus. I rubbed them and splashed water on them, the way I usually do when I have too much sleep in them. But my right eye just wouldn’t clear. I helped get Kim and the boys out the door, sent a message to my team that I wasn’t feeling any better, and crashed on the couch for a little while. When I woke up, my vision was even blurrier.

This time, I tested them – the left eye was fine, but I couldn’t see anything clearly with the right one. Just a big, blurry spot – like looking through textured glass. I couldn’t find an insurance card for my vision plan, though, so I tried not to think about it. Which makes no sense, because to do my job, I had to read and write a lot of things on a computer screen; that makes it kinda hard to forget I can’t freakin’ see.

But I’m the king of denial, and I persevered. When Kim got home Thursday night, I told her I think I might have a problem. I told her what was going on, and she said I would need to find my vision plan info or come up with the money, but I’d better get my eyes to a doctor’s office the next day. I started Googling, and when I saw that flashing lights and blurred vision might indicate a retinal detachment that could lead to permanent blindness, I agreed.

Friday morning, I started an IM with my manager, who helped me find the info I needed for my vision plan. I called an optometrist just up the street, but they told me they didn’t have any appointments available. Did I mention I’m going blind?! I thought-screamed into the phone in my head. It must have worked, because they offered to find me an appointment at another office, about 20 minutes away. I figured it was worth the risk of not being able to see the road, and took the appointment.

One thing you need to understand clearly here, is I am insanely squeamish about my eyes. I can’t do contacts or eye drops, I can’t stand looking into eyepieces, and that stupid air-puff test is absolute torture for me. I wear glasses, so I have to go in at least every two years for an exam, but I usually plead with them not to dilate my pupils.

But this time, I figured I had to just suck it up. I let the assistant fight to hold my eyes open and squeeze the dilating drops in, but I didn’t like it one bit. And I blinked a few times in anticipation of the air puff, but she managed to get it on the third or fourth attempt in each eye. And I stared at the stupid blinking red light while they took color photographs of the backs of my eyes. I even fought the urge to cry as the doctor asked me repeatedly, “Which looks clearer? One…or two? One…or two? One…or two?” How the hell should I know? NOTHING looks clear right now!

In the end, the basic optometrist couldn’t help me. He said there was a bunch of vitreous floating in my right eye, which was not only keeping me from seeing out – it was keeping him from seeing in. Vitreous is a gel-like substance in the eye, and sometimes a piece can break away from where it’s supposed to be, floating freely in there and casting shadows on the retina – that’s what floaters are. But this newest piece caused a little alarm on the part of my optometrist – something that caused a lot of alarm on the part of me – so he’d ordered photography in an effort to ensure my retina hadn’t been damaged when the vitreous tore free.

Sound gross? It gets worse. The real reason he was concerned about retinal damage was, the vitreous had left a trail of blood. The big glob of blur in my right eye? Blood. Inside. My. Eyeball.

He got me an immediate appointment with a retina specialist, and sent me on my way – but not before confirming that I didn’t want to stick around and pick out a new pair of glasses now that my prescription had changed. Umm, no, I think I’ll wait until I can actually see, period, before I worry about seeing better.

I got to the retina specialist’s office, and the real fun began. First, I had to sit and fill out a bunch of paperwork that I couldn’t read – which is fine, because I couldn’t write, either. You’d be surprised how much you rely on your vision to be able to write legibly, but at least there’s a tactile element to it to give a hint or two that you’re on the right track. I’ve since discovered, it’s even worse to attempt texting while half-blind. There are no clues as to what you’ve just typed.

Anyway, I had to sit and try to read and write while an elderly couple sat across from me, discussing insurance payments and mortgage rates in those loud voices that the elderly reserve for one another. Once they figured out their insurance quandary and determined that the couple currently on HGTV would, indeed, be getting their money’s worth in their selection (they went with the house from the third showing – the wife didn’t like the siding in the back, but at least it had a decent yard), they quieted down a little. When the assistant called the woman to the exam room, the man quieted down even more – until he started farting, apparently too deaf to realize I could hear him. What the hell, dude? Like my eyes aren’t already watering enough?

But soon it was my turn. The assistant took me to an examination room and told me she needed to get my blood pressure. I started rolling up my sleeve and she just smiled, shook her head, and held up a contraption that looked like a handle with a long, yellow, pointed thing on the end of it. Then the point was moving toward my left eye. She lucked out with that one – got it in there before I could react, while I was still thinking, Wait, does she mean she needs a reading from my eye? Sort of like the first time a pet-owner puts their cat in the bathtub. They only get away with that once; the next time, Kitty knows what to expect and how to react.

She tried five times to stick that damned yellow thing in my right eye. They need to let it touch the eyeball for a split second in order to get a reading, but that’s a split second too long. I kept squinking – squirming and blinking – and finally she huffed, “That’s okay, I’ll just mark down that I couldn’t get a reading. He has other ways to get it.” That last part sounded like a threat, so I told her to try it one more time, steeled myself as best I could and OHMYGODSHE’STOUCHINGMYEYEBALL and it was done.

Next, she had to dilate my pupils – even though they’d just been dilated. I warned her I’m squeamish about my eyes, and she handed me a tissue. Then she squeezed a couple drops of a numbing agent into my eyes, followed by the actual dilating solution. I’m not sure why they needed my eyes to be numb, but the optometrist hadn’t needed it. I suppose I should have been thankful the optometrist had left out a set of drops. I see them heading for my eyes and I just blink and cover. That’s where the tissue comes in handy, as the drops are deflected down my cheeks toward my mouth. I wonder if my tongue would have been numbed if I hadn’t stopped the drops?

She led me to what they called “the dark room” – a small, cozy room with a dingle dim lamp, no artwork to stare at, and a couple of couches – one with the elderly lady sitting on it. I thought about telling her what her husband had been doing in the waiting room, but she probably was well aware. Besides, she seemed sad and scared, and probably didn’t want to talk to anyone. Or maybe that’s me I’m remembering.

I closed my eyes and listened out for any warning that she had the same digestion issues as her husband, then enjoyed the solitude after another assistant came and retrieved her. When one came for me a few minutes later, she asked, “How are you doing?” in an impossibly cheerful voice, as if I weren’t sitting there experiencing the darkness behind my closed eyes and wondering if I’d soon have to get used to seeing the same thing with them open.

She led me to a room with another device, one where I had to stare into two mounted eyepieces while a bright light moved across them, burning its memory into my retinas. I have no idea what it was doing; it wasn’t the special camera I’d been sent there for, because that was in the room where she took me next. She told me to sit in the chair and test my comfort level with my chin in a strap and my forehead against a barrier as I stared into the camera; she said this was important, because I’d have to sit very still for 5-7 minutes while she took the pictures. Why don’t you just kill me, instead? That might make it easier on you. I can’t even sit still while I’m sleeping, and that’s when I *don’t* have my head shoved against a medieval torture device.

She explained how this process would work. “We’re going to take multiple pictures of your retina, but to make it easier to see it, we use a vegetable-based dye that we inject into your…” – and that’s when I damn near passed out in anticipation of the next word – “…arm.” Oh, thank God! “This is called, ‘fluorescein angiography.’ The dye is harmless, but in some cases, it can cause an allergic reaction where we inject it. Also, it’s going to cause discoloration of your urine for 24-48 hours, so don’t be alarmed when you notice your urine is bright orange, like a highlighter.”

She was almost right. It was actually bright yellow – I mean, fluorescent yellow, just like a highlighter. It was amazing. Yet oddly, I’m the only person in the house who really had an appreciation for it over the weekend.

Anyway, she brought out a cushion for my arm, and placed it on the table’s surface, next to the camera. Then she pulled out a vial of a reddish-orange liquid, a tourniquet, and a small catheter with a needle attached to one end. I think you know what happened next. I was fine with it, but I wasn’t expecting her to leave the needle in the whole time. I thought she’d just inject the dye and be done with it, but no – it’s more like an IV drip, where the needle stayed in my vein and the liquid flowed into my arm over the course of the 5-7 minutes that I was expected to sit still as if nothing was happening.

She told me to look into the eyepieces and, moments after injecting the needle into my vein, she looked into the display on the opposite side and said, “Good! The dye’s starting to show up in your retina!” I have a reasonable understanding of science, but that still blows my mind. She stuck something into a vein in the crook of my elbow, and it magically re-appeared at the backs of my eyeballs. I half-expected her to pull the empty vial from my ear.

Then it was time to focus on the center of an LED cross, where presumably the camera lens was located. For what was undoubtedly an expensive, precise piece of medical machinery, this thing had lousy graphics. The cross was made up of a bunch of little red rectangles, about the size of the ones used on TRS-80 screens in 1979. But I did my best to focus on the center, and she told me to blink twice and then to keep my eyes open until she told me to blink again. You probably already know how that went.

“Blink. Blink. Aaand, taking the picture in three…two…one. Oh no, you blinked! We’re going to have to do it again. Now blink. And hold it open for three…two…you blinked again!” I heard a lot of that on Friday afternoon. I had to look into the eyepieces forever, shifting my eyes in eight different directions – up, down, left, right, up-left, down-left, up-right, down-right – as she counted down to frustration every time. But miraculously, we got it done. She congratulated me like she would a child – “Good job!” – and led me to another exam room where she uploaded images of my retinas to a computer screen, along with two graphs of similar shape, but with one being much closer to the X axis than the other – I imagine this one as proving my right eye is deficient, as if the graphs were showing the amount of retina I have remaining in each eye. She left me to these thoughts and told me the doctor would be with me shortly.

He arrived with a third assistant, took a quick look at the computer screen, and declared he was going to have to take a good, hard look at the backs of my eyes. His assistant sat down at the computer and took hold of the mouse, awaiting his instructions as he strapped a seemingly enormous spotlight to his head and reclined my chair until I was lying flat on my back. He then turned off the overhead lights, stood over me, pointed the spotlight into my right eye, held up a strange-looking metallic object that looked like the handle of a spoon, and began to take the aforementioned good, hard look.

“Okay, keep your head facing forward, but turn your eye to the left. Look at this.” He held up the spoon handle. I looked at it and suddenly was blinded by the most intense light I’ve ever seen. I think he had a miniature solar eclipse strapped to his head, and I had just looked directly at it. I squinted.

“Keep your eye open, please.” And suddenly there was a hand on my eye, two of its fingers peeling open my top and bottom eyelids. “Good. Now look over here.” The eclipse again. I tried to blink, but couldn’t. Suddenly I had visions of Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, undergoing the Ludovico Technique. I tore away and blinked.

“Nope. Keep your eye open.” The hand again. And the light. And suddenly, pain. Something was pressing into my eye socket. My God, is he pushing on my eyeball with that spoon handle? What’s going on? Somebody get this maniac away from me!

“Good. You’re doing fine.” No, I’m not! “Sarah, nothing from this angle. Sir, look to your right, please.” More pain. “Sarah, a pinpoint heem. Nasal inferior. Sir, look up. Sarah, a big heem. Temporal superior.” And lots of other words I didn’t understand, interspersed with bursts of pain. After eight eyeball positions, the eclipse disappeared and the pressure let up on my eye socket. The lights came on, and there was Sarah, attempting to draw my floaters in a diagram of my right eye on the computer. I have no idea what program she was using, but the doctor felt she wasn’t using it correctly, grabbed the mouse from her hand, and drew a much bigger splotch than she had drawn in one of the eight sectors. Then he sat down to explain what’s going on with my eye.

“Sarah, give me that eye model.” He showed me a cross-section and gave me the same explanation I’d already heard, about the liquid inside the eye and the vitreous pulling away. The good news, he said, is that he hadn’t seen any tearing or holes in the retina – but that it would be a good idea to come back for two more exams over the next couple of weeks, to make sure it’s not still bleeding, there’s no more pulling away, and I haven’t lost any vision. He warned me to call him if I were to suddenly lose my peripheral vision. As if I’d downplay that.

He said the blood should dissolve and the vitreous thin out over the next month, at which point I should be able to see better. He said nothing about the meteors or the dizziness. I still have no idea whether they were related, or if all three things happened as a result of something else. I’ve been under more stress than usual lately – probably at DANCON 1 or possibly 2, at the very least. Maybe that set off all three things. I’m just relieved to know it’s nothing worse, and I hope the doctor doesn’t find anything worse on the two subsequent visits.

In the meantime, there’s only one thing I can see clearly right now – and that’s more torture in my immediate future.

About Dan Bain

Dan is an award-winning humorist, features writer, emcee and entertainer from Raleigh, NC. His collection of humor essays, A Nay for Effort, has earned him fans from one end of his couch to the other. Why not join them and buy one? (You won't have to sit on his couch.) Dan will donate 10 percent of the book's proceeds to education. You can check it out at; thanks!
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10 Responses to The law of diminishing retinas

  1. John Suddath says:

    try going for shots in your eye every month

  2. I blew up my eye in high school and they had to do the spoon thing to push the back of my eye around. Spent a week on my back to allow the blood to settle out…awful. Hang in there, it’s tough to find a happy place when that sort of thing is happening but at least you have an idea of what’s going on, instead of flying blind (couldn’t help it Ha)

  3. Hello there.
    Read this through a cluster of floaters in my right eye that have been occasionally driving me nuts. Interesting timing. Anyway, glad it wasn’t worse, and that your eyes weren’t gouged out because you thought you were going to a doctor but wound up in an episode of American Horror Story. Hope it improves and your life calms down soon!

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