Thursday, January 17, 2013

Through Another Man's Eyes

Like a lot of young fellows when I was a kid, I built model airplanes.   In fact, I dreamt of airplanes, hung out at the airport, followed pilots and begged to sit in airplanes and cranked my head back every time an airplane went over. I especially loved the old biplanes and used to sit and watch an old Stearman, flown brilliantly, dust the fields of the Libby’s Food plant near home. 

Years later, many years actually, I was working and living a remote area of northern Michigan where the local 2000-foot single strip airport was on a hilltop adjacent to what passed as a downtown business district.   Small planes came and went, doing “fire-watch” or “Wolf-counts”, transporting the sick and injured out of town on medical flights and others with pilots who just enjoyed flying.   One day about 1998 or so I was walking between the bank and a local shop and happened to look up in time to see a classic biplane pass over the downtown, and make it’s turn to “final approach”, then cut the throttle to land.   It made me happy to see the old bird not only flying, but also landing at our local strip. 

The next day as I left home to drive to work another plane was coming in to land, and to my surprise it, too, was a bi-plane.   In fact, that whole week I didn’t see any monoplanes come or go.   So, out of curiosity (nosiness) I drove up the hill to the airport which was really just a small collection of old hangers, one paved strip and a string of tie-downs in the grass.   There were no bi-planes there, just the usual collection of Cessna 182’s and a Piper.  While I was there my old buddy Bob landed his 182, having come back from an early fire-watch flight for the USDA Forest Service.  He waved as he taxied by and I had to leave to get to work.   I must have missed whatever event had brought all the really interesting planes to town. 

Summer was over, and Fall was in the air.   The long flights of geese and ducks were passing over, headed south like retired teachers.  Sunshine turned to blustery mixed rain and sleet and a flight of Canada Geese dropped low, headed in for Ice Lake.  One goose, separated from the others, passed over me at about 200-feet of altitude and (I’ll be damned), he was a Bi-goose!!  He had four wings!!  My first thought was, “Of course he is flying alone, the other geese know he’s different and won’t let him into the group”.    I really wanted to take a picture, thinking that The National Enquirer might pay good money for something like that. 

About that same time I noticed that the State Highway Department had let their quality controls slide, as all the highways in the area had multiple yellow lines on both sides and the normal double line down the middle was now a whole groups of lines, eight or ten running together.  Things continued to get stranger and stranger yet.  When I was outdoors at night there was not just one moon in the sky but many, in fact with either eye I was seeing about eight moons, all floating near each other with some “smeared” images between them.

The marks I made on my work to guide a knife or a drill instantly became groups of marks.  And, that’s when I decided to go see my optometrist.   “Yup,” he said, “You need new contacts.  The disposables you have been using aren’t stiff enough and your vision is distorted.”  So, I switched from the nice, soft, weekly-wear lenses I really liked to some firmer, day-wear-only lenses.   That seemed to help for a time, but within six months I was back for a change.  A new prescription, new, fresh lenses and I was good as new.  And, six months later I was seeing bi-planes again.   A friend directed me to an Ophthalmologist in Escanaba and after waiting the ninety-days or so until I could get in to see him we finally met.  His opinion was that specialized lenses with hard centers and soft perimeters or skirts would solve my problem.   And, so they did, for almost a year, with several changes of prescription. 

Now, jump ahead to about 2004 and my new residence and business location in South East Louisiana.  My eyes were killing me.   I couldn’t see, I was in constant pain, and I didn’t know any eye-care specialists near my new home.  Finally, a kindly customer directed me to a really skilled Optometrist in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, just an hour’s drive away.   With high hopes and great expectations I walked in for my appointment, and in spite of a full waiting room and busy exam rooms that doctor ran every test he had available.   His staff and office crew did everything to make me comfortable as they shuffled everyone along on their way through the office.  After about four long hours of tests, and eye drops, and peering and measuring and waiting, and staining and UV sensing and more waiting, the Doctor took me into his office.   “Finally”, I thought to myself, “A doctor who has it figured out and I’ll be able to see again!!”  What a disappointment when he looked straight at me said, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do for you here.   In fact, I’m not even going to charge you for today, I feel so bad that I can’t help.   But, I know a man who may be able to help you.   You have a disease called Keratinous, a thinning and bulging of the corneas, and only a real specialist can fit lenses to your eyes.   Dr. Steve Gill is that doctor, and he works miracles.   Here’s his number, and good luck.”

Finally, my problem had a name, and I guess that was good.  If you know your enemy you can fight back.  I still could not see, but at least I had an option.  As it turned out, Keratinous is progressive and just continues to get worse and worse until the victim cannot close their eyelids over the bulging corneas.  There is no reason why some folks get it and some don’t, it does not appear to be environmental, or caused by a virus, or genetics, it is simply “luck of the draw”.   About one in two thousand persons, mostly men, exhibit some symptoms late in life, and one in several thousand of them have it so bad it cannot be corrected with different contact lenses or spectacles.  Of course, I was that lucky one in ten thousand persons who was going quite blind.  And, even luckier, I was near a place where I could expect real, effective treatment.   The Low Vision Clinic of Louisiana State University was in New Orleans.   Dr. Gill was the miracle-worker who fitted lenses to my bulgy eyes, and brought sight back to me and I will forever be grateful for his patient care and attention. 

But, remember that Keratinous is progressive and when it became impossible for even Dr. Gill to make lenses, which would balance and stay on my eyes then Dr’s Kaufman and Kim took over. Surgical removal of my corneas and human tissue transplants were required.  When we refer to an expert we sometimes use the phrase, “He wrote the book on such and such.” Meaning that we truly admire their skills.   In this case, Dr. Kaufman had, indeed, written several books on corneal transplants, and was a world-renounced authority when it came to this surgery.  I could not have been in a better place. 

By this time, looking with either eye, I could easily see and count over seventy images of the Moon on a clear night and the spread from one side of the group to the other covered nearly one-quarter of the sky.  All together there were over one hundred and fifty of them, all connected with fuzzy, indistinct bright zones.  This was due to the lumpy nature of the surface of my corneas.  I can’t begin to describe to you how crazy the world looks to a person with advanced Keratinous. 

Over the course of two transplant surgeries and two lens removal and implant surgeries, several years of healing and eventual stitch removals and the learning of great patience I recovered enough sight to drive again.   I am still very dependent on one contact lens, an amazing example of optometry which holds my new left cornea in shape.  I don’t drive after dark, as the slight dimple at each of the thirty-six stitch locations magnifies the “flare” of the headlights.  I am down to about a dozen Moons, as seen with each eye, so it is easy to imagine living in a Sci-Fi world. 

Why have I told you all of this?   I wanted to publicly thank my great doctors and their assistants.  And, there’s one more thing.  Right now, while you are thinking about it, pull your Driver’s License out of your purse or your wallet and turn it over.    Do you see on the back that little “check box” which gives permission to pass on your organs when you no longer need them?  Since you have minute, get a pen and check that box YES.  You see, my new-used corneas came from donors who were willing to pass their gift of sight on to a stranger. .   My first surgery was on a Friday morning.  That means that on about Tuesday of that week some poor joker didn’t make it home for dinner.   It was his cornea I got, the one I’m looking at this monitor with right not.   It’s really him I want to Thank.  Get your pen. Do it.  What goes around comes around. 

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