How I Nearly Went Blind: Recognizing and Treating Retinal Detachment
I saw swirling blobs dancing in my vision — and at first I ignored them
When I first saw swirling blobs dancing in my vision this summer, I thought they would go away. But the over-size floaters refused to leave, and over the next three days my vision blurred intermittently as well. That’s why I ended up at the eye doctor, who told me I needed to see a retina specialist.
I ran through a mental list of the several dozen things I needed to accomplish that day. “How about next week?” I said, trying to blink the floaters away.
The doctor shook his head. “This can’t wait.”
I’ve been legally blind in my right eye since birth, and my nightmare is that I would one day lose the vision in my other one. Suddenly the nightmare threatened to come true.
“You have a detached retina,” the specialist explained. “If you do not have an immediate operation to try reattachment, I am virtually certain that within two months you will be blind for the rest of your life.”
Turns out there was about a 30 percent chance I would be permanently blind anyway, even with the operation.
I felt a wave of fear. I’ve been a writer for 30 years: It’s how I make my living. And now the prospect of living in the dark.
Related: 10 Foods to Eat for Eye Health
A medical emergency
Retinal detachment occurs when the retina, the light-sensitive layer of tissue in the interior back of the eye, begins to tear away away from the bed of blood cells that nourish it and provide oxygen. (This stage is sometimes called a retinal tear.)
The warning symptoms of retinal detachment include the sudden appearance of multiple floaters — specks moving around in your field of vision that look like dots, hair or bits of string, according to the Mayo Clinic. Other symptoms include sudden light flashes and a darkening over part of your vision like a curtain being drawn across a stage.
The Mayo Clinic advises you to see a doctor immediately if you notice any of these symptoms. The longer the retina is starved of oxygen, the more likely you are to lose your vision.
Fortunately, early treatment is likely to save your vision, according to the Mayo Clinic. My grimmer prognosis stemmed from cataract surgery in my early twenties and other problems I’d had with my “good” eye.
Treating retinal tears and detachments
Most retinal detachment cases cannot be prevented, my doctor explained. They stem from an injury, from age-related thinning of the retina and shrinkage of the eye’s gel-like vitreous, or from inflammatory eye disease or advanced diabetes.
As long as the retina hasn’t detached, doctors can treat most holes, rips and tears in the retina with outpatient laser surgery to “weld” the retina back into position.
If the retina is detached, the surgeon may sew in a silicon “buckle” to hold the retina in place or — in my case — perform a vitrectomy, which involves removing the vitreous gel and injecting a gas bubble in the eye to hold the repaired retina in place while it heals. Over time, the eye manufactures enough fluid to replace the vitreous and the gas bubble dissolves.
Of course, the bubble blocks light from reaching the retina. This meant I would be blind for a minimum of eight weeks no matter what the outcome was. I’d be unable to do virtually anything on my own. No travel, least of all on a plane. The air pressure would cause the gas bubble to explode, blinding me instantly, the doctor said.
Surgery and beyond
My blindness remained constant for more than a month. Try as I might to avoid obstacles, I had bruises from my knees to my ankles. I sat in darkness for weeks, obsessing about every goal I had set for my life and lamenting how many of them I hadn’t accomplished.
At one of my weekly appointments the doctor said, “This looks very encouraging. You are going to see again.”
I was jubilant. I didn’t hear another word he said.
That afternoon I got a phone call from a lovely woman I had known briefly more than 30 years ago and whom I had only recently met again after returning to my hometown just before the world went dark.
“Want to hang out and get a coffee?” she asked.
So simple. But at that moment it was like winning the lottery on my birthday.
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