Harry Turner's Episodes of Personal History
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The First Operation

August 1979

Saw the eye specialist on July 8 and he wants to operate on my right eye this coming November – the time depends on the waiting list. This initial op will be a cryopexy, to stabilise the retina and minimise the risk of detachments. Hopefully, the cataract on this eye will then be removed in the New Year.

I shan't be sorry (so long as the op is successful!) since it becomes more difficult to read and see detail with my "good" eye. I had a succession of ideas for paintings recently but it's frustrating trying to put them on canvas. I took advantage of the bright sunlight a week or two back and tried to work in the garden. I drew up one canvas fairly successfully despite some confusion between my guide markings and some elusive marks that proved to be a perambulating greenfly... Then I had to give up when the light went.

I'm seeking consolation in tackling photography more seriously than I have in the past. I know that'll sound daft in view of the difficulties I've just mentioned, but I should explain that I'm using a 35mm camera which has interchangeable view-finders: I am able to use a "waist-level" view-finder which gives a large clear image (I can see this bright image better than I can see the actual scene!) and also has a magnifier to check the focus. All in all, being able to take good photographs helps me to feel less frustrated over my deteriorating vision.

November 4th : Won ticket to Dave Brubeck concert in Radio Manchester contest

November 5th : Saw Dave Brubeck @ Tameside Theatre, Ashton

Monday November 26th : To Stepping Hill for preliminary eye operation

Tuesday November 27th : Cryopexy on right eye

Friday November 30th : Back home again

3 December 1979

I got home from hospital this weekend... I suppose I should start off with a reassuring bulletin to say that the op appears to have done all it set out to do. I don't get any immediate visual benefit – essentially it's a preventative step to minimise possible complications when I have the cataract op in the New Year.

My sense of the flow of time has been disrupted by the op and I still haven't found my way back to reality. I distinctly remember last Tuesday morning because I had to don a drafty backless operating gown (not really my style!) and when I was rolled over for a jab the nurses wanted to know which exotic beach had produced my all-the-way-down tan and wouldn't believe my story of holidays at home.

Thereafter things were a trifle confused. I rode a swaying trolley along miles of drafty corridors, went for a brief spin along the A6, seemed to pull up in an underground trolley park (somewhere in the vicinity of Merseyway), hung about until traffic jams eased, then I was given another jab, but not in the same place...

The next thing I was aware of was being back in the ward on Wednesday morning.

My eye was bunged up for a couple of days and I went for a shave on Friday after the pad was removed and I could wear my glasses. I must admit I was scared stiff by the villainous face reflected in the mirror – and that was after the swelling had gone down.

DIARY NOTES for 1980 plus extracts from letters

25 January 1980
Cataract operation on right eye postponed.

8 February 1980
OU Modern Art course starts

Bank Holiday Monday May 5th : Into hospital for cataract op on right eye. Everywhere was deserted that morning – the roads were empty with not a soul. I had a strong conviction it was the end of the world with me the only survivor ...

Tuesday May 6th : Had op.

Wednesday May 7th : Pad removed from eye, but only saw pink opacity, not even light and shade: apparently some blood to be cleared.

Thursday May 8th : Still no vision, but mist is grey-white.

Friday May 9th : While wiping eye realised that I had glimpses of handkerchief through a thin rim of peripheral vision; central area still opaqued. But as the day progressed, light & shadow, with some colour, emerged in the central patch.

Monday May 12th : Increasingly aware of shapes and colour and patchy detail as vision clears. The windows at the rear of the ward seem relatively smaller than image in good (left) eye. During Mr Gupta's final examination, could see the group of doctors relatively clearly for a brief period. Saw TV images as if through fluted glass, but occasionally sharp.

Tuesday May 13th : After cleaning eye, was aware of a Cezannish 'facetted' world. On occasions, the images seems sharper (without glasses) than through left eye.

14 May 1980

My handwriting's a bit erratic for sustained letter writing at the moment, so I've fixed up an extension cable and dragged the electric typewriter out into the garden. If this note is shorter than I intend it to be, I'll have been short-circuited. Or worse.

The op went very smoothly. Going into hospital on Bank Holiday Monday was a trifle disconcerting at first - everywhere seemed so quiet: no people about, hardly any traffic on the roads, it almost seemed the end of the world had been the day before. But it was business as usual at the hospital, and there I was, back in the same ward, being greeted by familiar faces and settled in in no time at all. Even managed to see the snooker championship finals later in the day (there's not usually much competition for TV viewing in the Eye Ward rest room).

Having got that momentous matter resolved, I settled down for the night, deciding that hospital mattresses hadn't got any softer in my absence. The 'NIL THROUGH MOUTH' sign appeared over my bed, which is hospitalese for saying that you get nowt to eat or drink until after the operation.

Life in hospital is one long round of stuff being delivered on trolleys. There's a basic pattern to it but I've never found the energy to sort out what it is. You're laying back, peacefully dreaming of home comforts, and there's the distant clatter of an approaching trolley. You have several minutes to speculate on what it is arriving this time: tea, pills & potions, meals-on-wheels, drops & eye maintenance, sweets, newspapers, someone being wheeled away for an operation, someone being wheeled back, or someone trundling a trolley just for the hell of it...

The first drinks trolley usually rattles in about 5.30 am, a time when I'm sufficiently conscious to register its arrival but hardly awake enough to respond gratefully. Amazingly, most of the staff remembered that I swill black coffee for preference – good memories these girls:

I had my operation on the Tuesday morning. I played a very passive part in the whole thing again though this time I had a local instead of a general anaesthetic. There was taped music playing when I was delivered to the operating room though I was uncertain whether it was for the benefit of the staff or to soothe the patient. I was too busy marvelling at hearing Mozart at a time like this to fully register all the explanations I was given about procedure as a hood was placed over my head, and my head cradled so that I was vaguely gazing up at the overhead lights.

While things proceeded and looming faces masked the lights and medical small-talk wafted by unheeded, I was more aware of the outside world through the touch of a warm hand that held mine reassuringly all the time I was on the table. In retrospect that contact seemed the most important part of the whole business...

And back in the ward, it was back to welcome drinks, a meal, and a comparing of notes with adjacent patients... and a slightly restless, endless hot night. We were all aware of the operation next morning, complaining of prickles and irritation as lashless eyelids had gummed up during the night. But the time came for pads to be removed and cleaning up to be done, endless drops to be dropped, and some folks reported that they could see the nurses, and cheered the rest of us who couldn't.

It was a day of miracles. There was an old feller in the next bed who'd been blind for a couple of years before he came in, and he was able to see fairly clearly immediately after his operation. On our first day I'd been guiding him round, and unwrapping those tightly packaged portions of butter, cheese, and marmalade that cause problems when your vision is deficient. He finished up helping me round when I had to wear a pad for a while, which meant I couldn't use my specs.

We spent the next few days gazing forlornly out at all the sunshine and hoping it wouldn't disappear before we were discharged.

I started to get some vision back at the weekend. I was wiping a tear away and realised that I could see the handkerchief on my cheek in some detail. I couldn't see my hand properly when I held it before my face, but I could distinguish my thumb when I waggled it. From then on the whole eye gradually cleared up and, intermittently, I became aware of shapes and colour, and increasing detail. Still a long way to go – the specialist says it'll be two or three weeks before my eye has settled down again. But it's all very miraculous, and during the past few years I've learned to cultivate patience.

My immediate plans are to catch up with all the sunbathing I've been missing. If you hear reports of Arab terrorists seen lurking in the shadows in Romiley, pay no heed. It'll just be me, sporting an evil-looking pair of National Health "Foster-Grants" ...

It was a lovely June that year: warm, sunny, with a brightness my newly-restored sight found almost intolerable. For a while I was still dependent on my fading left eye to get around, and to see any detail, but eventually when my right eye had healed I had an examination and was told that everything was progressing favourably, and I was given temporary specs that 'blanked out' my left eye and gave my new vision chance to work.

It was marvellous. I wake up each morning and anxiously test my eye to reassure myself that the new vision has not just been a dream: every morning is another miracle, to be celebrated for the rest of the day.

Comparing the vision in each eye, I now realise how long I've been living on memories, with an efficient brain making mental corrections to counter the gradually thickening veil over my sight. I'd forgotten just how bright and clean and washed with light the world is, even on the dullest, miserable day.., how bright and intense colour can ...... the subtle colours that lurk in shadows... I had, literally, to learn to see again.

The removal of the lens from my left eye means that images of the outside world are not focussed, are blurred. But as I'm short-sighted, without glasses everything has always been blurred for me, as long as I can remember. So I'm no worse off in that respect. The temporary problem is that the size of the retinal image in each eye differs: my right eye sees a LARGER image than does my left, so the two images don't fuse as they should normally. So I'm restricted to monocular vision, using one eye only; this makes it difficult to judge distances. . . I tend to reach out for things and not quite making it, or people hand me things and let go before I've decided I've got them.

The new lens in my specs is now convex where before it was concave. The world appears slightly magnified, so that eveything seems nearer than it used to, and I'm relearning distance estimates. This can be disturbing at close hand – when I look down my feet seem inordinately large and my legs shorter. Lifting my glasses means things are stretched out to more 'normal' proportions. (With time, I become more used to the view through my glasses; without them my feet seem so far off, I feel dizzy!)

Initial problems are that the new specs seem to distort the world - the sides of doorways appear to bulge in a confining way so that I edged myself delicately through the apparent narrow gap in the middle. And after a long time compensating for a virtually blind eye and making due allowance for obstacles on that side, it's disconcerting to find that situation suddenly reversed.

However these problems are short-lived: the brain monitors and interprets received perceptions and learns, so that doorposts eventually register as vertical. Though the magnification of the new lens partially reduces the accustomed field of vision and it requires more head movement to make full use of peripheral vision.

It took longer to learn to cope with stairs and steps, with kerbs and low walls. Steps seem unaccountably to finish before you've descended; going up you can stumble over an 'extra' last step. Your foot meets the kerb before you've lifted it. But again, it's all a matter of practice makes perfect, and it's eventually sorted for you mentally.

I still have problems when I'm hemmed in by a crowd or packed in a lift; I get disorientated. The best way to stifle annoyance/indignation at the occasional collision is to get in first with: "I'm blind in one eye: what's your excuse?"

There are all sorts of minor snags to regained sight – but I'm not grumbling, just trying to explain. I'm grateful for all I'm now able to do!

I have little patience with people who used to complain that I passed them without acknowledgement – it amazes me that this continues to upset some people even when you've explained that it's enough of a problem seeing where you're going, without scanning the face of every passer by. There was a time when I smiled at everyone just in case I should have known them – but that can get you into trouble, too!

Reading had become a struggle to make the most of available light; it had degenerated into a skimming over the page, a continual struggle to retain the place, going in search of words missed and lost in a desperate effort to retain sense and continuity. It is only now – post-op – rereading some of the texts I have struggled over in the recent past, that I realise how much I inevitably missed. My reading now has regained its fluidity, speed and instant comprehension of an argument, a quicker understanding of a text, where I had got used to stumbling on a few words at a time, losing track of the overall sense.

I'm surprised there isn't a Cataracts Anonymous rehabilitation course. It can be hard work adjusting. It's at times like this that I realise what a marvellously delicate organism the human eye really is, and how much we just take it for granted until something goes wrong. ■

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