An Eye-Watering Experience

So, we’d just got home from Queensland Sunday evening, and couldn’t face cooking dinner. We headed for the local Chinese for some takeaway. Along the way, we pulled into a 7-11 for some milk.

As I parked, I looked up and saw a big black vertical streak in the centre of my vision, with two arms angling away from the apex, trailing a rain of tiny black dots. Oh hell, I exclaimed.

“You shouldn’t be driving,” said hubby.

“No, it’s OK, they’re going away now,” I said.

And by the time we picked up our order, they were gone. Still, it shook me.

“You remember me telling you how I was getting a lot of those rainbow flashes in my right eye the last couple of nights? It must be to do with that.”

Five years ago my eyes began “flashing” semicircles of rainbow lights in my peripheral vision. During the day it’s unnoticeable, but a night it can be distracting. Which is why I now avoid driving at night.

My ophthalmologist tells me it’s due to “benign posterior vitreous humour detachment”. As you age, the jelly that fills your eyeballs starts to dry up and shrink, trying to pull away from the retina. The tugging generates electrical signals that the brain interprets as flashes of light.

The next morning there was no trace of floaters. Perhaps it was nothing to worry about. Still, I was uneasy. My ophthalmologist had previously told me that if I ever had any new symptoms, I should seek immediate help.

Later, I thought (I’m an ace procrastinator). I have heaps to do. Then, as I bent down to load the washing machine, another crop of black streaks appeared. I hit the phone.

Unfortunately my ophthalmologist, and all her colleagues were out of town for three days.

I called my GP for an emergency appointment, and was in his office at 9:45.

At 10:00 I was in the office of his optometrist, who brought a battery of hi-tech instruments to bear. Eye tests. Drops. Bright lights shone into my right eye. Photos taken of my retina.

“You have a small horseshoe tear in the upper right quadrant of the retina in your right eye,” he announced, “and you must go immediately to the emergency department at the Eye & Ear Hospital.”

Do not pass go, do not collect your $200.

With one clearsighted eye I drove carefully home, called a taxi, and texted my husband. It was now 10:30.

After waiting for what seemed like ages – in reality, about ten minutes – I was on my way, stopping at a bank to fill up my wallet. The half hour ride seemed endless.

They’re doing some major works at the Eye & Ear Hospital so it’s a long walk, following the red line on the wall, from the entrance to Emergency. There was a queue. And a fairly full waiting room. In front of me, a young man with very red weepy eyes (and a clingy mother). And a very old man with a Zimmer frame and a very old deaf aid. Both triage stations were already occupied.

Eventually I was called forward. I told my story, and handed over the optometrists referral letter. The procedure was explained: after the initial triage I would wait to be registered as a patient. After registration, I would wait until a nurse called me for assessment. Then I would wait to see a doctor, who would decide what treatment, if any, was required. For which I would then wait.

“You mean the laser treatment my optician told me about? The ‘spot weld’, as he called it?”

“Well, it could be that. Just don’t have anything to eat or drink, dear, in case it’s surgery. Just take a seat over there, please.”

Oh, great, I thought. Wait to be registered, wait to be seen, wait for this, wait for that… maybe even end up overnight. I’m going to be here the rest of the day at least, and I didn’t even bring my iPad.

I was wrong.

Within five minutes, I registered as a patient. I had barely settled into my seat in the waiting room when I was called for assessment. A short time later I was before the doctor. It was not yet noon.

Doctor was a very smart blond lady who enunciated every word very precisely, in a strong Eastern European accent. Image Meryl Streep in a white coat playng a KGB Colonel. In a Bond movie. She shone yet more even brighter lights in my eyes.

“Look left. Now down and left. Now left and up…” and so on.

She drew a diagram illustrating my tear, showing where she would attempt to place three concentric rows of burns around the border, creating scars, which would in effect staple down the tear. If this is not done quickly, she explained, within 24-48 hrs at most, there is risk of fluid getting through the tear and behind the retina, detaching it entirely and causing blindness.

“It is most important that during treatment you do not move your head, or your eyes, especially while the laser is firing, as this could cause the beam to burn your retina in your area of vision. Now, please take a seat in the waiting room.”

As I sat, feeling stressed, nurses came by from time to time to put more drops in my eyes. My vision blurred still further. Suddenly Colonel Streep swept through the waiting room, beckoning.

“Come, Douglas, yes, now, come come, follow me!” she trilled. Her accent suddenly seemed stronger.

“Now, sitting here, please,” she said, by now quite alarmingly Russian.

“Now I will explain procedure. I will place this lens,” which in my blurry vision looked about the size of a jewellers optic, “on your eyeball.”

My heart rate shot up further. I can’t bear anything touching my eye. I tried wearing contact lenses once and it was agony.

“This will keep your eye open,” another jolt of terror – I wouldn’t be able to close my eye, “and also focus laser. But first I put these drops in your eye to numb it, and then this jelly to stick lens in place. The drops may sting a little.”

“They will not numb your eyeball completely,” she added reassuringly. “Are they stinging yet? No? I add more.”

She placed me in a chair which was bolted to the floor. At any moment I expected the appearance of a sinister man in a suit, stroking a white cat.

She wheeled the laser up to my chair, jellied my eye, and inserted the lens.

“Chin here. Rest forehead here,” she ordered, indicating the frame on the front of the laser platform. “Is too high?”

It was. With my chin on the rest I couldn’t bring my head forward against the frame. She lowered it. Then once my head was in position, she raised it again. I had to grip the sides of the frame and pull myself forward to keep my head in position.

“Remember. Most important. Do not move your head. Look always at this green light.”

And so it began. An excruciatingly bright vertical strip of light was shone into my eye. She moved it from side to side, like a Cylon scanning. She added another circular beam.

And all the while, the instructions: look left, look right, look up and right, look down…

And then without warning…

Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam.

With each sound, a tiny needle of green light shot into my eye, each producing, for the tiniest instant, a needle of pain, like a microsecond of toothache in my eye.

I gripped the frame fiercely, every instinct screaming, “Close your eyes! Look away! Pull you head back!”

If it had gone on any longer I don’t know if I could have kept my head in place and my eye looking “left and up”. But it stopped.

More vertical lights. More circular lights. More instructions. Getting more Russian.

“Looking right! Looking up and right! Not moving head,” she said urgently, pulling me back into position. “Moving eye! Not moving head! Look only with eye!” she admonished.

And then again. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam.

Again the panic, the almost irresistible urge to look away, pull back, gripping the frame for dear life. Did my eye wander? Did I lose concentration?

I don’t know how many times the sequence was repeated. Five? Six? And then it was over. The lens was prised off my eyeball. The machine was wheeled away. The lights were turned back on.

Through my right eye, all I could see was one very bright circle of light, shining through a thick purple fog.

Colonel Streep explained that my tear was in a very difficult position. Normally she would place three concentric rows of burns all the way around the edge, but in one area she had only been able to place two.

As a result I would need an appointment with the senior surgeon next week, to assess progress and decide what further treatment, if any (such as more laser, or cryogenic, where they place a tiny probe into your eye socket to freeze part of the retina), or actual surgery, was needed. Oh what delights to look forward to!

“Go back to the waiting room and speak to the clerk at the window to your left, by the sliding doors.”

The window was to my right.

It was now five to three. I blundered out into the street, vision still very blurred (though the purple fog was gone), in a state of shock. Couldn’t decide what to do. Couldn’t think straight. Walk to the station and catch a train? Hail a taxi? I couldn’t see well enough. Eventually I realised I ought to phone for a cab.

Later, I looked at the information sheet from the hospital. ‘The doctor may be called to attend an emergency. Or another consultation may require more time. As a result you may not be seen precisely at the appointed time. You should allow 3-5 hours for your appointment.’

At least I’ll have time to adjust to whatever they have in store for me next.

Thank you to the staff of the Royal Melbourne Eye & Ear Hospital for treating me promptly and efficiently, and giving me an experience I will never forget. And my apologies to K—, my most excellent doctor, whose accent unwittingly fired my overactive paranoid imagination!

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)