In May this year, I moved to the bustling city of Beijing for work. Apart from a constant niggling headache and the occasional blurry vision (which I’d just attributed to the pollution and a natural part of settling into a new city) I’ve been loving every moment of my new life here.
I hadn’t thought much about my blurry eyes, but when my computer monitor became unreadably clouded one day at work, I decided it was probably time to get a new prescription for my contacts. So a week or so later, on a sunny Beijing afternoon, I casually breezed in for my eye check at the local expat doctors.
I don’t know why I asked to see an ophthalmologist that day instead of an optometrist like I normally would (I mean, I had been curious at what the difference between them was and I figured if I met one, I could ask) but maybe somewhere deep down I subconsciously knew something wasn’t quite right. The difference by the way, as I learnt soon thereafter, is that an ophthalmologist is a physician who went to med school and specialised in total eye care.
My French-trained Chinese ophthalmologist greeted me warmly and went through the motions of asking me to read the black letters on the wall. Everything was going smoothly until she dilated my pupils and peered through the huge robot-like eye machine to study my retinae.
The bright and chatty physician suddenly went very quiet and I felt her senses prick to attention. “Uh… there is something seriously wrong here…” she started, her voice noticeably higher in pitch, and her fingers busy toggling at all those foreign robot buttons.
Did she just say something was “seriously wrong”?
She kept asking me to peer into the robot machine and look up, down, left, right, top right, bottom left, and then all over again. She mumbled something I couldn’t quite make out, and pursed her eyebrows together in contemplation. She cocked her head a few times as if she needed confirmation, and then finally after what felt like years, she leaned back in her chair and declared, “Okay, yes. It’s as I suspected. You have retinal detachment in your right eye, and retinal degeneration in your left.”
Huh? What is a retina again?? I thought.
She continued, “In the eye world, this is a code red. It’s the highest of eye emergencies. If you don’t get surgery within the next 24-72 hours, you will go blind.”
I could feel my furiously beating heart jump all the way up my throat.
I’m going blind?! But then how am I going to see the faces of my sisters’ future babies…?!
Before I could process the information any further, my ophthalmologist was telling me that an emergency vehicle and a nurse would immediately accompany me to an eye specialist hospital, where I would be booked into emergency surgery.
You know, it’s weird when you hear such crazy news out of the blue like I did that day. You’d think everything would become overwhelmingly muddled pretty fast, but instead I felt strangely calm.
The next few hours went by very quickly. I let work know what was going on, and in a blink, a colleague was by my side, surgery was booked, all the paperwork was organised, and my parents were booking flights to Beijing.
Later that night, lying in bed thinking about the day’s events, I felt scared but incredibly lucky. Lucky to have found the problem before I’d actually gone completely blind (can you imagine?!); lucky to have such a supportive workplace and caring colleagues; lucky to have amazing friends who’d spent the evening with me; and lucky to have loving parents that would drop everything and fly across the world to look after me.
Feeling grateful and hopeful for the surgery, I wrote a little note on my bedroom mirror before falling asleep: “You can take my eyes, but you can’t take my smile!”
The next day, on the full-mooned Friday 13th June 2014 (yes, Friday the 13th!) in Beijing, China, I went through a 2-hour surgery on my retina-detached eye. Apart from having all my eyelashes chopped off for surgery (noooo!) and the minor, excruciating detail of my anaesthesia wearing off halfway through the surgery and thus traumatising me for life (I’ll spare you the gory details…) the scleral buckling operation was a success.
They skilfully sutured up my detached retina (which I now know is kind of like a balloon that surrounds the eyeball) and then stitched a silicon buckle around my eyeball to keep the retina in place. (Don’t google image search this if you want to eat ever again. Trust me, it’s not pretty…)
That night after surgery was pretty hellish. Both my eyes were covered with bandages and I felt like someone had gorged my eye right out of the socket. I only got painkillers when my friend demanded it from the doctor on my behalf (the Chinese aren’t that keen on pain meds for a reason I don’t yet understand) but then kind of regretted taking them because the nauseousness that followed was almost worse than the pain.
My amazing colleagues and friends all took shifts in staying with me, including all through the night on the uncomfortable hospital bed, putting up with my blood-stained tears, whimpering, and attractive dry hurling into a plastic bucket.
The following days in hospital of complete darkness were a life changing experience. I mastered the fine art of going to the bathroom relatively quickly, but by golly, I underestimated the difficulty of finding your mouth with your chopsticks (especially when you’re using them to eat porridge…) or the difficulty of walking when all you have to rely on are the sounds around you and a vague memory of where objects had been. I discovered that the world is a very different place when you are blind, and that in a dark world, there is rather a lot of time to ponder and contemplate.
I started to notice how much of our everyday language is intrinsically linked with our ability to see. “Let’s see what we can do.” “I’ll look forward to it.” “See you later.” “We value his insight”.
I started to notice that in our visual world, the ability to see is inextricably linked with our ability to reason (“seeing is believing”), our ability to dream (“we have a vision for the future”), and even with our ability to love (“I fell in love with him at first sight”). I mean, even in Na’vi philosophy (you’ve seen Avatar right?) “to see” is to open the mind and heart to the present and embracing something as if encountering it for the very first time.
It made me wonder: Did living in darkness doom one to live a life without reason, without dreams, and without love? And what about eyes being the supposed window to the soul? If you can’t see, does that mean your soul is closed for business? I thought of inspirational people like Helen Keller (who as a deafblind person, became a prolific author, political activist, and lecturer) and assured myself this couldn’t possibly be the case.
While my blind internal monologue continued in full force, I started to notice other small things.
I started to notice how the same kitsch Chinese music would play at dusk outside my hospital ward window, and how every day my ears would hone a bit more into the chattering voices of the women excitedly milling around to join the open-air street aerobics.
I started to notice the new intensity of flavours as food hit my tastebuds, exploding and awakening new sensations that made me giggle with excitement. Xinjiang spiced lamb pizza? Chilled Perrier with a hint of lime? A juicy whole mango over a bucket so as to not drool juices onto my chic hospital scrubs? Oh yes please!
In the mornings, despite not being able to see the light, I started to notice how deliciously enveloping and decadent the morning sun felt, as the first rays streamed through my hospital window and kissed my skin.
And despite not being able to see their faces, all it took was a whiff of my mum’s perfume, the warmth of my daddy’s bear hug, and the relieved smile I heard in their voices (Did you know you can hear smiles in people’s voices? It blew my mind too!) to get a sudden rush of familiarity and comfort, knowing my parents had safely arrived in Beijing.
I won’t even mention the overwhelming sense of appreciation I felt as I graduated from both-eye bandages to just one, and then to black pin-hole glasses; or the immense relief when the doctor confirmed I wouldn’t have to have the second internal eye surgery (which would involve having to spend 2 months lying face down 24/7 in recovery). And I definitely won’t mention the beaming pride I felt when I successfully undertook my first unassisted shower.
I’m telling you, it’s all about the small wins!
When I got discharged from hospital sporting my super-high-tech (not!) black pin-hole glasses, the doctor told me that the following months of recovery would be crucial for the future health of my eyes. Luckily, my macula had not yet detached by the time I had surgery, so I hadn’t gone completely blind in my right eye – but a good portion of my vision had been irreversibly and permanently lost. How I tackled the recovery of my eye from now on in would determine whether the remaining percentage of my vision would improve or deteriorate.
The next few weeks had its own share of challenges, despite being in the comfort of my own house and being waited on hand and foot by my selfless parents. No work, no exercise (for 6 months!), no heavy lifting, no stress, no computer, no raising heart beat too high, no reading…
Fighting off the ravenous itch to just jump straight back into life is so much harder than I ever could have imagined. Let’s just say – thank god for friends, audiobooks, and Siri!
I have now thankfully graduated to my normal glasses and am living unassisted by the parentals, but I’m still battling with waves of sharp pain that come and go, constant tiredness, and a useless right eye that make tasks like tackling stairs, reading or writing quite a challenge (this piece of writing has taken a looong time to write…).
Luckily, my super supportive work has allowed me to fly back to New Zealand to recover for a while before coming back to work in Beijing. So the plan is to regain as much vision as I can in my right eye, and to rest my left eye so that doesn’t deteriorate any further. It’s all teams go from here on in – wish me luck! 🙂
So… What have I learnt through this whole experience?
(1) To see is a privilege
I certainly hope you don’t have to go through an experience like mine, but the next time you notice the raised yellow guidance bumps on the pavement (which I always used to complain about because it makes walking in heels kinda hard), or when you hear the beeping pedestrian signals at the zebra crossing, take a moment to think how lucky we are to have the gift of sight.
There are 285 million people in the world that are visually impaired and 39 million that are blind. That’s almost like the whole of the USA being visually impaired, and the whole of Argentina being blind. Our ability to see the world around us with our eyes (not to mention our ability to hear, touch, smell, feel and taste!) is no less than a privilege and not something we should take for granted.
(2) Our health is paramount
I recently read in a Bloomberg article that despite Beijing’s life expectancy rates being at historical highs, the average 18-year old Beijinger today should prepare to spend as much as 40% of those remaining years in ill health (i.e. cancer, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, etc). And it’s not just Beijing. Our lifestyles are such that while we are all living longer, the quality of that extended life (or what the World Health Organisation call the “health-adjusted life expectancy” or HALE) is suffering.
Our bodies are not machines and we only get one of them per lifetime (we don’t seem to come with a warranty or money-back guarantee unfortunately), so take it easy and be nice to it. Go get your eyes checked regularly, and be proactive about your health checks before it becomes an issue. As my parents keep reminding me, our own health is important to us, but it’s also of importance to those in your life who love and care about you.
After all, what good is the wedding, the promotion, or the round-the-world holiday when you ain’t got your health to enjoy it? Our health is worth our time and investment.
(3) We are nothing without each other
Having a scare like this away from home in a foreign place has made me even more cognisant of my long held belief that we are the sum of those around us. I can’t express just how overcome with gratitude I was to receive the support, love and care from my colleagues, my friends and my family throughout this whole process.
No matter how strong we think we are, there will always be a time when we need to rely on the goodness of others to give us a helping hand, and we in turn should always be there for those that need us too. As Helen Keller said, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”
(4) We are surrounded by beauty
Just stop whatever you’re doing right now (well, read until the end of this sentence first) and take a good look around you. What do you see?
Maybe it’s because we see the world through our same eyes every day, but have we slowly become de-sensitised to the blinding beauty that surrounds us?
I didn’t realise it so much until this whole thing happened, but now I can’t help noticing how ridiculously happy a sunflower looks with its wee black face and all its yellow petals bursting into laughter.
Or how absurdly adorable my friend’s pre-schooler is when she escapes from bathtime in her birthday suit, eyes wild, blonde curls bobbing, scattered by squeals and gurgles of glee.
Or how endearingly beautiful my dad’s crow’s feet wrinkles are at the outer edges of his eye, creasing into familiar form every time he smiles – each time as if retelling a lifetime of smiling stories.
So why not take a few minutes out of your day, take a good look around, and see how many beautiful sights take your breath away. When you’re really looking, it seems they just don’t stop! In fact, why not take the time today to look at your partner, your mother, your child, your sister – and tell them just how beautiful they are to you.
The world is truly a beautiful place, and through my experience of darkness I have discovered so much light.
4 July 2014