Oprah is smiling at me from the magazine rack across the waiting room at Barnes Retina Institute in St. Louis.* With her arms flung wide, her body slightly bent at the waist, she looks ready to laugh with her whole body. I stare at her for awhile, wanting to be in on the joke. When she becomes blurry, I will know that the eye drops the technician put in several minutes ago have taken effect.
Maybe if they dilate soon, we can get this over with quickly. It’s my sixth surgery to correct diabetic retinopathy, but I am not used to this procedure. I can’t shake the anxiety of waiting. I close my eyes to help speed the process of opening my pupils wide so the doctor can shine his bright light into them and cauterize the swollen, leaking blood vessels behind the retina and prevent any potential vision loss.
“I’ve had about 67 of these surgeries,” an older man’s voice invades my thoughts. Sitting behind me, he tells his friend about his struggles with diabetes. “I just can’t get it under control,” he says.
I try to remember when was the last time I monitored my blood sugar…and did I remember to take my medicine today? What about that donut I had last night? “I’m killing myself from the inside,” I chide myself. “God, don’t let me go blind,” I almost whisper. I shift in my seat, check my watch and survey the overflowing waiting room. It’s going to be a long afternoon.
The waiting room is nearly empty when my name is finally called. I follow another technician to a smaller room with a lot of strange equipment that has begun to at least look familiar. The doctor greets me kindly, if not warmly. His name is Dr. Blinder. Even in my anxiety, I always want to tease him in a voice reserved for close friends, “so, Dr. Blinder, anybody give you a hard time about your name?”
But he doesn’t invite such familiarity. Soft-spoken and reserved, he looks like he takes his job way too seriously. Today, though, I’m glad he does, so I decide again not to broach the subject.
More eye drops go in, these to numb my eyes. The doctor adjusts the chin rest so that if I lean forward a bit, I can rest my head in front of his machine almost comfortably. The technician fastens a cloth band around the back of my head, “just to remind you to keep your chin down during the procedure,” she says.
During a series of equipment adjustments and murmured communication between doctor and assistant, my heart begins to beat faster…almost imperceptibly at first. “Breathe,” I tell myself as the doctor puts a sort of monocle in my left eye to keep it open. “Don’t forget to breathe.”
It’s a brief warning before the flashes of light begin The intense white light seems to bore through my pupil and into my body. My toes curl and lift my heels off the ground. My fingers clench around the armrests. I concentrate on my breathing again to suppress the scream welling up in my chest.
“Just breathe,” I urge myself as the laser flashes over and over. “In…out; again, in…out.”
“Try to keep your right eye open,” he says gently. But it is almost impossible, as it tightens defensively against the tortuous light. Twice before, my opposite eye squeezed so tightly, the monocle popped out.
It seems like an eternity, but it couldn’t be more than fifteen minutes before the doctor turns off the light, moves his machine back and says, “OK, all done. You did great.”
Unstrapped from the chin rest, I look around the room. Everything is bathed in red. I know it will go away, but it always startles me. I nod as the doctor tells me to “take it easy” for the rest of the day. We exchange pleasantries.
Walking back into the empty waiting room, I fish around in my bag for the sunglasses I am almost positive I dropped in there this morning. I’m going to need them. It is so bright in here.
*NOTE: Since writing this in 2002, I have had several more surgeries in both eyes. I have some permanent vision loss in my right eye, and I have trouble seeing clearly with both eyes. My diabetes continues to be a struggle, and I now take insulin to control it.