How a Health Scare Helped Me Appreciate My Eyes Again

How a Health Scare Helped Me Appreciate My Eyes Again

My greatest fear in life isn't dying, but losing the ability to do the things I love. And of course, losing my eyesight would be catastrophic to both enjoying and creating photography. Here's how a recent health scare made me appreciate something I took for granted.

I've been very nearsighted my entire life. My eyeballs are more elliptical than spherical. In other words, they're too long for the focal point of light that passes through their lenses to strike my retina; the focal point falls in front of the retina. So, I wear concave contact lenses that shift that focal point to the back of my eye where it belongs. While they correct my vision, they don't change the fact that my eyeballs are fundamentally misshapen. Because of the deviation from spherical shape, there are uneven tensile forces on the vitreous, the gel that fills the space between the lens of my eye and the retina. Those uneven forces make the vitreous more likely to detach from my retina at an early age (posterior vitreous detachment), which is common in older people and in itself is not a problem, but as the vitreous pulls away from the retina, it can sometimes tear the retina by pulling it along with it — a serious condition that leads to vision issues and can lead to permanent blindness.

Recently, I noticed a sudden increase in floaters, which are small pieces of collagen that clump together in the vitreous, causing shadows to be cast on the retina, looking like small black flecks and strings drifting across my vision. It's normal for these to appear as people age, and they generally settle at the bottom of the eye eventually, or your brain simply learns to ignore their presence in the field of vision. However, when a lot of them suddenly appear, it can signal a posterior vitreous detachment. And in nearsighted people, the risk of an associated retinal detachment is higher. I called my optometrist, and while I normally have to schedule my appointments about a month out, they wanted to see me much sooner, first thing on the following Monday morning. 

Naturally, I did what I've always done when something I don't fully understand catches my attention: I dove into learning about it. That is, of course, a terrible idea when you have a potential medical issue on your hands, as you'll quickly fall into the black hole of Internet self-diagnosis and worst case scenarios, which is basically what I spent the weekend doing. I'm a huge believer in the power of science, and in the back of my mind, I knew I was being proactive in that if my retina was tearing apart, I would catch it in time and surgery would in all likelihood fix it. But then again, the idea of my eye being sliced open to fix the problem wasn't exactly a comfort. 

So, Monday rolled around finally, and I drove to the optometrist, who saw me immediately (rare for their normally overbooked office). She dilated my pupils and proceeded to shine lights into every nook and cranny of my left eye as I watched her own eye concernedly flit back and forth as she peered through the magnifying device, giving me instructions to move my eye in different directions. We then repeated the process with my right eye. She furrowed her brow, then had me repeat the process, looking all the more carefully, making me think she saw something. It turns out she saw nothing. She pulled back from the optical device, and finally, the concerned interest turned to a relieved smile: "Your eyes are completely fine."

I don't ever want to lose the ability to appreciate scenes like this.

While my pupils were still hilariously enlarged and I couldn't focus on anything closer than six feet, I asked the hazy blob sitting in front of me why I had the sudden increase in floaters at a relatively young age, and my doctor said it was just the normal transition that happens with age; it just happened a little sooner and more quickly for me than most. My brain would eventually learn to ignore the bothersome but essentially harmless spots in my vision, and they would probably settle out of my field of vision at the bottom of my eye anyway. So, for the next six months or so, I will have to deal with the annoyance; otherwise, I will be fine.

They tend to become most visible when I look at a bright, relatively uniform thing, so they do make working on a computer all day a bit more tedious. But after a few weeks, they're starting to become less severe, and I've become less sensitive to them drifting across my vision. And in the grand scheme, they're really not a big deal.

More than anything, though, I'm just thankful to have my vision intact because it made me realize again (at a conscious level) that photography is dependent on my eyes continuing to function as they were designed to, and that's not guaranteed. I mean, vision is a wonderful thing for all of us lucky enough to have it, but obviously, it's particularly cherished by those who are in love with the art of capturing beauty with a camera. And the idea of that vision being in jeopardy jolted me into not taking it for granted. 

So, is there some grand or profound message I meant to get to after regaling you with this unsettling, but ultimately nonexistent health scare? No, and I'm sorry if you read this waiting for me to get to such a message. Rather, it's the obvious, but sometimes easy to overlook message: it's important to appreciate the gift of sight, because we're not guaranteed to have it forever. Also, if anything threatens that, be sure to stay proactive in addressing it. It's pretty cool that we get to do this for a living or as a serious hobby. I do wish I had taken a selfie while my pupils were dilated, though; you would have laughed pretty hard at that.

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Elan Govan's picture

All the best Alex. And thank you for sharing. Take care.

Alex Cooke's picture

Much appreciated, Elan. All the best to you too!

Azmi File's picture

Reminds me to 2013 when my left eye has ablatio retinae /retina detachment.

at first just complain of blurred vision, when going to ophthalmologist they immediately say 'cito' ('stat')! And 13 hours later I was at operating room to do scleral buckle (repair retina detachment)

two months can not work. lucky now it's back to normal. agree. we must appreciate the gift of sight..

Alex Cooke's picture

Wow, I'm really glad you're back to normal now. That's scary!

Gabrielle Colton's picture

This happened to me, I was so scared. After I had lasik I had double vision for months, couldn't edit a thing, turned out my eyes were just too try haha.

Alex Cooke's picture

Yikes. Did you think the Lasik was worth it in the end? I've wanted it for a while.

Jonathan Brady's picture

So happy to hear that all is ultimately well, Alex!

Alex Cooke's picture

Thanks so much, Jonathan!

Wait till you experience an ocular migraine. Those are even more nerve racking if you get the constant flashes.

Alex Cooke's picture

I actually do get those and lose my vision for about 15-20 minutes. The worst was when it happened right before I was supposed to go on stage; that was not a fun experience.

Samuel Flores Sanchez's picture

Thank you for sharing your experience.
I had a very similar one just a few months ago.

I always think in Mickey Mantle. I'm not a baseball fan but I'm curious and somehow one day finish in his Wikipedia entry and from that is this excerpt:

"Mantle's career was plagued with injuries. Beginning in high school, he suffered both acute and chronic injuries to bones and cartilage in his legs. Applying thick wraps to both of his knees became a pre-game ritual, and by the end of his career simply swinging a bat caused him to fall to one knee in pain. Baseball scholars often ponder "what if" had he not been injured, and had been able to lead a healthy career"

And even with that he became one of the greatest baseball players of all times.

In everyone's lives there's drama. We differentiate ourselves in the way we deal with that drama. Continue working, creating, be passionate about what you are doing and continue doing it no matter what. And never, never, feel sorrow for yourself. that's my way of making any sense from all of this

I had to register just to say, that I experienced the very same deal about 4 months a go. I got 3 doctors opinions until I could rest easy. Its just collagen floating around, everything was fine.

However, when you wake up and suddenly you feel like you live in a dirty aquarium, you get super scared. I was absolutely positive that my retinas were falling off. But its something that apparently happens to everyone, it was just super aggressive in my case, because the allergies that infected my eyes caused it in an instant.

As you say, working on computer is annoying, and large grey and white surfaces tend to be something I avoid. However, it is getting better every week.

Bottom loine? I guess we all grow old.

Alex Cooke's picture

Dirty aquarium is a great way to describe it. It scared the daylights out of me at first to, as it was super sudden. Does it bother you when you look at the sky too? Anyway, I'm sorry you're dealing with the annoyance as well, but I'm glad it was also ultimately harmless in your case.

Oh yeah. Not checking out the sky on a bright day anytime soon. I get kind of small white buzz on bright surfaces. My doctor told me it is because of the way light reflects, and collagen bumping on my retina. Looks freaky, nothing to worry about.

The thing is, every time I kind of stop seeing them, I go looking for them. And find them. Its an annoying cycle.

I had an eye problem last year that really damaged my trust in the hype around modern medicine.

I wear glasses so I routinely go in for eye exams and new glasses if I need them.

This time (March 2016) the doctor said "Well, your cataract is ready".
Me-"WTF? I am only 60! Cataracts are for old farts!".
Dr.- "It's an easy procedure and you will be back with better vision than ever".

My layperson's experience with cataract anecdotes was "Best thing I ever did". I had never heard of an issue.

Fast Forward to the Big Day.
I go in for surgery and the next thing I know the surgeon is telling me "we had to stop because there was a problem."

IOW, I had a posterior capsule rupture where the lens (chopped into bits with a laser knife) fell out the back of the capsule holding it through a hole cut into the capsule by said laser knife.

Short story: I had an emergency vitrectomy a week later and a six week recovery. Ten days of which were motionless on my side.
Still no lens in my eye and many consultations with various surgeons with a variety of opinions as to whether they could implant a lens or not.

I finally opted for a contact (+12.5) instead of more knives on my eyeball.

Supposedly complications occur at a 1.8% rate for cataract surgery. Despite my impressing the surgeon on the value I placed on my eyes ( who doesn't) I fell on the wrong side of the statistical line.

My vision is pretty good now but my depth perception is poor because the magnification factor of the contact however I am happy I can see.

Alex Cooke's picture

Wow, I'm so sorry to hear that. Does it affect your ability to shoot?

No because my left eye (the damaged one) was not my dominant eye. My right has always focused better.
I get to live the teenager life by putting on a contact every morning that actually solves most of my vision issues. I preferred the contact as it lets me out of facing more surgeries by a doctors I have a lot less faith in.
The only issue I have is depth perception is crap. Walking along mountain hiking trails is far more perilous as I cannot tell where my next step might land.
But mostly my health is good and my work is as bad as always.