I’m no stranger to the optometrist. I’ve been nearsighted since I was in elementary school. My father thought I was a lousy athlete – well, I am – because I couldn’t hit a baseball. But when I started walking up to the blackboard to read what the teacher had written, that’s when my parents took me to the eye doctor, who quickly assessed I was massively myopic. As in, 20/750 vision. Legally blind.
This never bothered me, except from my late teens through my late 20s when I wanted to be a rock star and thought wearing glasses wouldn’t fit the image, John Lennon and Jerry Garcia notwithstanding. Over the decades I’d go to the optometrist once every year or so and get a new prescription. And with glasses I was fine. Regarding my chosen profession, I could set up phono cartridges with precision, and I could notice if something was even less than a hundredth of an inch off square and parallel. Typically, I’d level something by eye, and when I’d check with an actual level, the bubble would almost always be in between the lines. Reading was no problem.
A few years ago, my ophthalmologist told me I was developing cataracts in both eyes. Well, being in my 60s, I wasn’t exactly shocked. He told me I wasn’t ready for cataract surgery yet, which made me happy, as I could procrastinate. However, I learned that the surgery can’t be done too soon, or too late, so it would only be a matter of time.
Over the next few years my vision got gradually worse. Driving at night started to become more difficult. And it was becoming harder and harder for me to focus on text, especially on a computer screen, to the point where I couldn’t see text clearly at all. Not great when you’re a writer and editor, but I could get by. Driving was another story. I got to the point where I couldn’t clearly distinguish between the road and the grass, and the glare from incoming headlights was severe, as were the haloes around traffic lights. I started to avoid driving on certain roads, and soon gave up on driving at night altogether except on well-lit roads that I knew, for short distances.
So, it was no surprise when at the end of last year my ophthalmologist told me the time had come. The surgery was scheduled for February 14, 2023, Valentine’s Day. (Well, they say love is blind…) I had the option of choosing lenses that corrected for near vision, far vision, or both. I chose to correct for nearsightedness, at the advice of my surgeon and optician. (Each type of lens has its advantages and disadvantages and may not be for everybody.)
I’m the kind of person who is squeamish about anything medical, especially when it’s done to me. So, as the day of the surgery drew closer my apprehension grew, even though dozens of people had told me it would be the best thing I’d ever do, and that the procedure was “nothing.”
Yeah, nothing…all they do is blast apart the lenses you were born with and throw them into some medical waste disposal unit, and replace them with pieces of plastic or whatever these things were made of. But perhaps most reassuring was the fact that my father had told me it was nothing. He was a self-styled tough guy with an Achilles heel: he was a complete wimp when it came to medical stuff. He would have to take Valium to go to the dentist. He wound up getting colon cancer because he procrastinated on getting a colonoscopy. (They fixed it, but the fix wasn’t fun, and could have been avoided.) So, when he told me it would be no big deal, it held weight.
(Note: ordinarily this would be the place in the article where I'd put in an illustration of a cataract surgery procedure. But I don't want to look at pictures like that!)
At the 2022 New York Audio Show, my friend, Stereophile’s Herb Reichert, was effusive in singing the praises of cataract surgery. “You have to get it! You won’t believe how much better you’ll see! Look at that corner of the room over there. What do you see?” I told him I saw the sign welcoming visitors to the show, but that it was kind of blurry. “I see everything in that corner in amazing 3D!
Still, I was really nervous in the days before the procedure. Each eye would be done one week apart. (Talk about hedging your bets.) I had been putting drops in my eyes, which somehow brought home the reality of what was about to happen. On top of that, I got hit with a twinge of gout two days before the procedure – which turned into agonizingly painful, almost-can’t-walk gout the day before. I actually called the surgeon the day I was scheduled to have the surgery to make sure he could do it. He said he could if I was up to it. I decided to go ahead.
There's no way I would have remembered to take all those drops without this.
A friend drove me to the Island Eye Surgicenter. It was a very impressive, clean, professional outfit, which was reassuring. After a short wait I was ushered into the pre-op room, where about four other patients were waiting. None of them looked like they wanted to make conversation. I was feeling really tense now – though I’ve had four stents at four different times, rotator cuff surgery, three hernia operations, a prostate procedure, more than one colonoscopy, more than one endoscopy, and some other fun stuff done, this was my eye! They must have seen the look on my face, and gave me half a Xanax. About a half of a much-less-tense hour later, they gave me an IV in preparation for getting anesthesia. I would not be put out – they wanted me to be aware “in case we have to talk to you during the procedure.” Nyaah-aah-aah!
A half-hour later it was showtime. They put me on a stretcher and wheeled me into a room labeled “Femto Laser 2.” I was told to lie down and they put my head into a device that looked like a shoe measuring thing, except head-sized. Well, I guess keeping my head clamped would be a good thing under these circumstances.
The doctor lowered a black cone to my right eye. Then, I saw a completely unexpected bizarre psychedelic light show! At first, three neon-red cauliflower-shaped clusters appeared in a triangular formation against a black background. I was actually starting to enjoy the light show. Then, blue lightning started to encroach upon the black. Finally, my entire field of vision was filled with this anime-looking blue lightning! The whole process seemed to take a few minutes and was completely painless.
This is what I saw during the laser procedure, as best as I can draw it.
They wheeled me out. “That’s it?,” I said? “Oh no, that was the laser part,” one of the techs told me. “Next comes the surgery part!”
About an hour later they wheeled me into another room and had me lie down. They started the IV anesthesia and put sheets around my head except for my right eye. I don’t know what was in that anesthesia but I was totally calm. Then came another light show, this time with three triangular lights which the doc seemed to be aligning with three dark spots. At one point I could also see what looked like lightish-gray “veins,” and I felt a very slight pulling. The doc was clearly manipulating…my eye. I had no sense of time but it seemed like about 10 minutes had gone by.
They moved me into the recovery room and all I could see out of my right eye were what looked like horizontal black tiger stripes on a field of red. “Is that normal?” I asked. “Yes.” After a few minutes the red went away and they soon told me I could go home. By the time I got there I could see out of my eye, but things were really blurry. I then proceeded to pass out for about four hours. When I woke up my vision was much clearer…I could read the headlines on the TV news.
A day later my vision was greatly improved. Interestingly, I could literally do an A/B comparison between my eyes by blinking them one at a time. My right eye now had astoundingly better color vision…blues were far bluer, and whites were this pure bright, white, without a grayish-greenish-yellowish cast. Incredible! I’d never noticed how my color vision had gotten worse over the years. Hopeless audio geek that I am, all I could think of is the way vacuum tubes gradually deteriorate until your system doesn’t sound as good as it used to.
Each day my vision in my right eye got better. I could now see more clearly out of my one “good” eye than the left eye. Although it was weird to not be able to see anything extremely close-up, something I’d been able to do my whole life. I could work at my computer, though the text was blurry. I had to use drugstore readers for about a month and a half until my eyes settled to the point where I could get a new prescription.
The second eye? Other than checking in and waiting to be rolled into the laser room, I don’t remember a thing about the actual procedure. The staff told me I’d be in a twilight state for the surgeries. If I was in The Twilight Zone for the first one, I entered The Outer Limits for round two.
The saga isn’t over yet. There has been some swelling of my retinas, which is being treated with eye drops. There’s some kind of membrane something or other thing happening on one retina, the name of which escapes me, and I don’t know how this will be resolved, but my retinologist doesn’t seem too concerned. I also developed a not-uncommon complication called posterior capsule opacity (PCO), where cells grow on the new membrane that holds your new lens in place. It’s a quick and easy fix that involves a laser and can be done in the doctor’s office. But my vision isn't 100 percent super-sharp yet.
So, how does this all relate to my life as a musician and audio reviewer? Well, I’ve gone from 20/750 vision to 20/30, and can see just fine without glasses up until about two feet away and closer. For those distances, I have a pair of what are called “computer progressive” glasses, which have progressive lenses that work beautifully from up close to around a screen length away. I spend something like 10 hours a workday in front of a computer, and text is now really sharp and clear, for the first time in maybe decades. The reduction in eyestrain is significant. I used to rub and blink my eyes at the end of the day, and would get to the point where I simply could not look at a screen anymore, or string two sentences together. Now, I feel like a mental weight has been lifted off me. I’m not just seeing better; my whole mental state has, well, sharpened.
They say you hear with your eyes. Well, even though I’ve had hearing loss (see my article, "Frankie Goes to the Audiologist" in Issue 196), I somehow feel like I can hear better, now that I can see better. For the first time since my days at Forest Brook Elementary School, I have peripheral vision. So, this is what it’s like! And I feel like my awareness of the outside world has increased, in general. (My wife hasn’t yelled “Hello! McFly!” at me in a while.)
I’m wondering if there’s an increased element of synesthesia going on. Or, some kind of cross-communication between the senses that I can’t put a name on. Wait, I just looked it up – according to Wikipedia, multisensory integration is the study of how input from the different senses may be integrated by the nervous system. A ha! There is something going on here! I did a little more quick research, and read that looking at what you are listening to helps you hear it better – the brain expects us to be looking at what we are listening to. Now I’m wondering if the link between visual acuity and aural perception is literally stronger than I’d realized – or experienced before. And if you really want to get wigged out, check out the McGurk effect.
My world is different now, and I’m still getting used to it. I’ve been given a new window into reality. I knew that getting new eyes and ears (hearing aids) would be life-changing, but nothing can prepare you for it actually happening. My appreciation for music, sound, art, conversation, 4K TV, album covers, the sheen of the grooves of an LP, the glow of the lights on my pedalboard, the sound of an acoustic guitar, life itself, has been uplifted in ways that I could never imagined. And I'm well aware that others have not been so fortunate in their struggles with aging.
Perhaps the biggest lesson I've learned as I've gotten older is: don't long for what you've lost. (Well, of course you're allowed to gripe about it once in a while.) Be thankful for what you've got.
Here’s a playlist for the next time you’re in your opthalmologist's waiting room.
Harvester of Eyes – Blue Öyster Cult
I Can See Clearly Now – Johnny Nash
Eyes of the World – Grateful Dead
I Only Have Eyes for You – the Flamingos
I Saw the Light – Todd Rundgren
Visions of Angels – Genesis
The Look of Love – Dusty Springfield
The Look of Love – ABC
Did You See Her Eyes – the Illusion
In Your Eyes – Peter Gabriel
Pale Blue Eyes – Velvet Underground
These Eyes – the Guess Who
Behind Blue Eyes – the Who
Open Your Eyes – the Nazz
Turn Around, Look at Me – the Vogues
Just One Look – Doris Troy
Header image courtesy of Pixabay/422737/Hebi B.