Gnats and black snakes in my eye

It started out as gnats flying around in the lower left corner of my field of vision later followed by the tail of a black snake. These things weren’t really there, rather they were “floaters” presumably on the outside of my left eye and probably, I reasoned, due to the nasty cold that I was suffering. The gnats and snake tails soon became a kaleidoscope of loose, moving debris and the clarity of vision started to fade dramatically. Time to get some help.

I took the soonest available appointment at Mountain State Eye Center in Keyser. I was beginning to get a little scared but still felt confident that Dr. Harvey would do something to clear away the offending material and we would both have a good laugh at my “Chicken Little” response. Nope.

After the examination, Dr. Harvey explained that the inner layer of the eye, the retina, had a giant tear and that fluid would soon get behind the tear and cause the retina to detach. Vision in that eye would grow increasingly worse and possibly be lost all together. Not good — Dr. Harvey scheduled me for emergency surgery with a retina specialist, Dr. Robert Wehner, in Winchester, Va. the following day.

The ride back from Keyser through the beautiful Mineral and Hampshire countryside, I find, is conducive to thinking things through. For this ride, of course, the recent news was center stage and I found myself reasoning that I might just let nature run its course and let the eye go — just another battle scar in the course of a complicated life. Indeed, such would harmonize well with my history.

Of course, this was out of the question. I could relate to those — particularly those who may be uninsured — who might reason this way. Many of these folks would also be hard pressed to take the time off from work for treatment. The days would pass, one by one as the eye gets dimmer — just the way it goes, sometimes. If this had happened about six or seven years ago, that person would have been me.

I gave some thought as to what folks did in the good ol’ days when this situation would come up. In 1930, for instance, there was no real treatment for this injury. Cryosurgical methods were in their infancy and the very first laser was still over thirty years away. This would be the device that established the laser principle — adaptation for micro-surgery would still be even further down the road.

Perhaps this lack of retina repair options the reason that people with names like One-Eye Jack, Dead-Eye Joe, Glass-Eyed Slim, Ol’ Blind Willy and so forth were so prevalent in society then.

The following morning, the old Hippie (aka my wife Stephanie) and I drove over there. The worst of the morning traffic was over and we found the place easily. I was whisked away to an examining room where I endured a long wait. I would later find out that I wasn’t the only emergency that morning. After introductions and a quick examination I was directed, without preparation or ceremony, to the operating room — just like that. I was seated at a device that looked like just another examination fixture. This was, in fact, the laser machine that is used to cauterize eye tissue back into place.

Dr. Wehner explained the difference between the milder argon laser and the big-guns krypton laser. I made the obvious kryptonite allergy reference which I’m sure that he hadn’t heard for at least the past four minutes. He still managed a polite and, I imagine, well-practiced laugh.

My view of the procedure consisted of a bright bar of white light, which illuminated the inner eye and brilliant green bursts of light from the argon laser. The repair of the large retinal tear took only minutes. A minor tear remained near the bottom of the eye but an accumulation of red blood cells and other debris from the larger tear simply absorbed the argon laser beam.

“Switching to krypton,” he announced.

“Way to go, Flash Gordon.” I mused. “How about warp speed and photon torpedoes while we’re at it?” Even the powerful red beam of the krypton laser couldn’t penetrate the bilge in the bottom of the eye. We decided to give it about a week to clear up then try it again. However, the danger of the retina detaching and falling into a heap was now past. Adorned with an eye patch (arrr) I found my way back to the waiting room and the Old Hippie.

I was told that the laser bursts could be painful to some patients and that there were ways to accommodate this. However, I hardly felt a thing. The surface of the eye is numbed with special drops prior to surgery. This is largely because a lens needs to be in contact with the eye. The resulting irritation is unavoidable but represented the only discomfort that I felt from the procedure.

I declined the offer of prescription pain medication, as the discomfort was relatively minor — not outside the range of ibuprofen and two vodka tonics. It helps to take one’s mind off of the irritation but it can be difficult to ignore the sensation of a bus parked in your eye. Still, I find nothing more effective than to complain about such irritation constantly though my spouse may not be in total agreement. By the next morning the irritation was completely gone.

I’ve chosen this less than funny subject because, as mentioned, it’s a perfect example of a rapidly worsening condition that we might tend to ignore or rationalize around or otherwise procrastinate getting treatment. For many, the cost is a factor. Somebody at Dr. Wehner’s office ball parked it at around $1,200 (I don’t have my paperwork back yet so am lacking the exact figure) but quickly added that they’re willing to work with their patients. “Your eye is more important than the bill,” she explained.

I may have waited too long to seek treatment. Consequently some of these “floaters” may be with me for life. As long as they don’t start forming words or tarot images, I guess I’m OK with that. If you start seeing gnats and blacksnakes, make sure they’re real — if they’re not, it could mean trouble.

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