The Eyes Have It
Zihuatanejo, Dec. 10, 2020
Although I had worn glasses for about a year when I was 11 years old, round John Lennon style, I eventually stopped using them and enjoyed eagle vision most of my life until about 2003 when I happened to be in Acapulco and stopped in a Devlyn Optics store at a mall there. The prescription glasses were ready within a couple of hours and they seemed to make reading easier for me. Over the years I upgraded a couple of times to different strengths and types of lenses mostly for reading.
Around 2015 I noticed I needed to use glasses for driving, something I had never needed before, but by the fall of 2018 I had to stop driving altogether because something was wrong with my vision and I was having trouble with depth and bright lights. It wasn’t until mid-December of that year that I went to a local oftalmóloga and was told I had cataracts.
I was devastated! Isn’t that something OLD people get? Well, I was getting older, but the oftalmóloga said it was genetic. She wanted over 21 thousand pesos per eye for the surgery.
My right eye became useless rather quickly so that all I was able to see were blandly-colored blurs, like looking through the bottom of a yellowed Coke bottle covered with Vaseline. My left eye still had some less affected parts so that if I sat right in front of our 43″ screen TV I could read things like subtitles and make out most of what was happening. Reading any book or newspaper with black text on white paper became impossible, and it was only possible on computer screens either by turning down the brightness or highlighting text which inverted the colors. I could only read and work on my computer by using a magnifying glass and turning the brightness way down. I had to invert the colors on my cellphone and tablet so that any text background was dark and the letters were a light color and then enlarge the text to be able to read.
Working with photos became mostly guesswork. I had to hold a magnifying glass in front of my left eye and try to remember the correct settings for certain effects on my image editing software because I really couldn’t discern the correct hues and tones of the colors, and I really couldn’t see the sharpness of edges or the correct tones of shadows. I had a lot of difficulty judging contrasts. Lots of details including graininess and excessive color saturation simply went unseen by me. I ruined a lot of photos.
I didn’t have fifty thousand pesos on hand for the surgery I needed, so I sought help via the local government, specifically their DIF (Desarrollo Integral de la Familia) since they were announcing a campaign to help low income people with sight disabilities including cataracts. I informed myself about the types of cataract surgeries and then went to an office in Ixtapa to be tested to see if I qualified. They told me I should hear back from them in about six months. SIX MONTHS?! They also informed me that the type of surgery that would be used was the most invasive with a large incision in the eye, not the more modern technique that uses ultrasound and a tiny incision. I wanted the latter.
I heard about another option available via DIF that involved going to the Instituto Estatal de Oftalmología located in Ciudad Renacimiento, a colonia of Acapulco. A 4-hour trip by car, a little longer by bus. So I thought I was all signed up to go with a group of other DIF beneficiaries via a special bus leaving around 2:00 in the morning, but I got a call from a friend that evening saying my name was NOT on the list. DIF never called me to advise me. They would’ve let me show up at some dark parking lot at 2:00 in the morning just to be left behind. That ticked me off. Screw them!
A doctor friend helped orient me so that I could get to the Instituto in Acapulco with the proper credentials and paperwork in hand. So while rumors about coronavirus were making the rounds the first week in March of 2020 after the first case in Mexico had appeared on February 27, my wife and I boarded an Estrella Blanca bus bound for Acapulco around 1:30 in the morning. What seemed like two hundred topes and about 4½ hours later we were disembarking in the Central de Autobuses in Acapulco. We sat in the terminal and snoozed for an hour or so before catching a taxi to the Instituto.
Once at the Instituto I got examined by Dr. Roberto Estrada, a very competent oftalmólogo who helped me to understand the procedure. Being a state-run organism of course there was a bit of bureaucracy to be dealt with. I found out I needed to have studies done to see if I was healthy enough for the surgery, and I found out that each surgery would cost a little over 10 thousand pesos, a much more affordable price and exactly the type of surgery I wanted, albeit in Acapulco. So that was ROUND ONE at the Instituto. We caught a vocho colectivo to the Central de Autobuses, walked over to the mall for a too-expensive breakfast, and slept for much of the ride back. I couldn’t enjoy the scenery much because everything was just a blur to me, but I always love travelling the Costa Grande of Guerrero as if it were in my blood since the first time I drove it at night in August of 1974 from Acapulco to Zihuatanejo.
My other senses were getting sharper from my lack of vision. I had extreme difficulty trying to see to cross a street, but I could hear a vehicle at quite a distance and sort of judge its speed. My sense of smell also became much more acute, and I got to where I could name the towns we passed through along the drives up and down the coast by their smell. But I couldn’t see across the bay or enjoy its amazing scenery while strolling with my wife, and I couldn’t make out the faces of the people we encountered on our strolls. After mistaking a few complete strangers for friends, I finally gave up trying to greet friends on our walks and had to make sure Lupita told me who folks were before greeting or waving to them.
ROUND TWO took place on March 30, 2020. Our ahijado Jaime drove us in his pickup truck leaving around 3:30 in the morning, another nighttime drive along the Costa Grande of Guerrero, definitely not for the faint of heart. At precisely the same time my wife and I were walking through the front door of the Instituto, the news channels were all announcing that a Contingencia Sanitaria had been declared by Mexico’s federal health officials. The Instituto immediately underwent a transformation, and all its personnel immediately appeared with facemasks on, appointments were cancelled and things started closing down. I managed to see the Internista, Dr. Vázquez, to get the all clear for surgery regarding my health tests I’d gotten in Zihuatanejo including a cardiogram and an x-ray of my upper torso. I also got my right eye examined and measurements taken by several instruments so that they could make the artificial lens that would be inserted during surgery, but all surgeries were cancelled until further notice, though I was allowed to pay for the surgery.
In some aspects the months dragged on interminably since my vision only continued deteriorating, yet somehow I managed to keep working, making websites, answering e-mails, dealing with my Message Board, and amazingly still taking and editing photographs, though more and more of them were actually getting taken by my amazing wife. Frankly, my saint of a wife took such good care of me that being blind almost wasn’t a problem except for trying to work or watch TV. Oh, and I couldn’t walk anywhere outdoors by myself.
Around mid-April of 2020 I began posting what I considered local Covid-19 reports that included a music video and one of my edited photos. Here is one of the first ones. I thought I was making the photos better by working on the lighting, colors, contrasts and clarity, but of course much of it was only my imagination because looking back at many of them I can see all the errors in them. It’s amazing that any of them turned out okay. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Months kept dragging by. Evenings on our azotea listening to music helped, I thought. I couldn’t see the toll the stress was taking on my wife. Around the beginning of August our grandson was diagnosed with leukemia and rushed off to a special hospital in Querétaro operated by the Teletón organization where he remained with his mother. My blindness and the diagnosis of our grandson hit my wife hard. We also immediately found ourselves responsible for two dogs: an elderly chihuahua with severe cataracts that our daughter adopted when she caught a neighbor putting it out with her garbage, and another adopted dog that had been hit by a car and only had vision in one eye. What a ménage we made! A beautiful sirena dorada and her sight-challenged family.
We kept trying to contact the Instituto to find out when surgeries would resume, finally getting through in late August. An appointment was scheduled for September 3. I had to make another overnight trip, this time with a private taxi, for another consultation with Dr. Estrada who found everything in order and set up the date for the surgery. FINALLY! Because so many months had passed I had to get another clean bill of health for surgery. In order to save a trip to Acapulco, I was allowed to show the results of all the exams to a local internista and simply present his certification the morning I arrived in Acapulco.
Somehow I kept churning out new websites, hunched over my oversized laptop with magnifying glass in hand, a magnifying glass that my suegro had used back when he was still a juez civil here in Zihuatanejo.
My first surgery was scheduled for the morning of September 24, 2020. I had to be at the Instituto at 7:00 in the morning, so we left Zihuatanejo at 3:00 AM and arrived precisely on time. They made me strip to my chones and wear a surgical gown, then they put me in a room with several other patients awaiting eye surgery, and there we were, all thinking about having a doctor put a knife in our respective eyes. Not the most calming thought while awaiting surgery. It turned out the most painful part for me that day was the the injection of anesthetic deep beneath the eyeball. What was supposed to be the more difficult of the two surgeries I needed seemed to go easily, and for only about an hour I had to lie still while a doctor had some surgical tool stuck in my eye. Towards the end when the new lens was being placed in my eye, I caught a glimpse of the overhead lighting that was at an odd crooked angle, but it was much clearer than anything I’d seen for years. Then it was over. A huge patch was taped on. I was rolled in the bed to the same waiting room to give me a chance to recover, then a nurse came and took me to a small dressing room where my wife awaited with my clothing. I quickly dressed, my wife already had the date for my follow-up appointment, and off we went to our awaiting taxi for the 4-hour ride back to Zihuatanejo on a beautiful sunny day whose beauty I still could not fully appreciate.
Back in Zihuatanejo by around 3:30 PM, we spent the remainder of the day resting after a late but hearty comida, and of course before sleeping we enjoyed our usual light cena.
The next morning my wife took the patch off. I carefully opened my eye and looked around, and out blurted OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD! The most English I’d spoken in months. I couldn’t stop saying it, though I tried to revert to ¡HÍJOLE! as much as I could. COLORS! CLARITY! WHITE was white, not yellow! Lines were clearly defined. I probably cried with joy at some point. I wanted to go look at EVERYTHING but of course I had to avoid dust and take it easy for a few days. I did manage to post the daily Covid-19 report using a photo I had worked on the day before the trip. But only about 3 of my hundreds of readers actually knew I had cataracts and was having surgery.
The next day my daily Covid-19 report contained a subject line and a music video that served as cryptic clues for the less-than-a-handful of readers who knew what I was going through. It also had the first photo that I had edited with my newly restored vision in one eye. The improved quality of my work was immediately apparent to me. It took a few days for my eye to get used to focusing and really seeing again after such a long time simply absorbing dull light. Looking at an illuminated computer screen was easy but also tiring.
I had to make the trip to Acapulco for a check-up a few days later. The doc gave my eye a clean bill of health and scheduled me for another appointment in 3 more weeks. I noticed Lupita was extremely exhausted when we got home and that she had lost a lot of weight. The weight of everything our family was going through on top of all her work to distribute food due to the pandemia and reading glasses to help others had caught up with her, but she never complained. Just suffered the stress in silence. Now it was my turn to care for her and help her to recover. A labor of love, literally.
I still had to go back to Acapulco for a consulta. For that appointment I went only with the two taxi drivers, leaving Lupita at home to rest. I had to get the final eye exam, schedule the second operation and pay for it. Because I had to come all the way from Zihuatanejo for each trip, our little group sort of got to be well known by the guards and office staff. The guards would direct the taxi drivers to a shady parking space near the entrance and let them use the bathroom or look for me or Lupita. If the waiting area at the Instituto wasn’t crowded, they let the drivers wait indoors.
One of the nurses said I might be able to get a discount if I asked, so I made the mistake of asking a bureaucrat who told me the request had to me made in writing but at first she didn’t even want to give me a sheet of paper or a pen. Since I made the request I couldn’t confirm the date for the surgery until the request was accepted or denied and a payment was made. Red tape. And I wound myself up in it. So I went home with no date and no receipt for the next operation. Oops. Lupita asked me why didn’t I just pay. Uh, well, uh, ’cause my wife wasn’t there to tell me what to do. Oops. But at least I got my left eye “measured” for the new lens it would need.
When I called to check on the status of my request for a discount due to the Covid-19 affecting our economy, I found out that it had been unceremoniously rejected. I expected as much.
Then there were a lot of missed connections and unanswered phone calls, and a few weeks slipped by before all the pieces fell into place. Instead of wasting yet another expensive trip down and back by private taxi just to pay and schedule an appointment, a novel solution was agreed upon where I could pay by bank deposit, call to notify their accountant, the doctor could schedule my appointment, and I could call back to find out the date. A real 20th-century style solution! E-mail was never mentioned though I’m sure I filled it out on some form somewhere months earlier.
My surgery was scheduled for Wednesday, November 25, 2020. I had to be at the Instituto at 7:00 that morning, which means we left Zihuatanejo at 3:00 AM. Another drive in the darkness down the coast. We arrived right on time, actually a few minutes before 7:00. We quickly made sure all the paperwork was in order, then I sat and waited for my name to be called, or rather a variation of it mispronounced with a Spanish accent. Changed into surgery scrubs then back to the waiting room where blood pressure is taken and an IV is supposed to be started. Things were a little backed up. I wasn’t put into a bed with an IV until just before the surgery, and there is always a bell-like soft tone ringing on one of the blood pressure monitors that never seems to get turned off.
I was one of the first to go that day instead of last like the last time. Though the anestesióloga was pretty, the surgery seemed much more painful than the first one. But wasn’t this supposed to be the easy one? It seemed to last well over a half an hour, and I was at the limit of my pain tolerance, though I didn’t realize how much until they removed all the coverings from my face and I could tell my other eye was soaked with tears because apparently I’d been crying. The thing I remember most during the surgery is constantly trying to look down as per the doctor’s instruction, though all I really saw was a geometric feature like a Monopoly house on its side. Not sure what it was. Everything else was blinding light and the discomfort of something moving in my eye while I tried to remain calm and not have any uncontrolled reflexes. Damn, not near as painless as the first surgery! Maybe I should’ve told the anestesióloga she was pretty or offered her a tip or something.
Rolled back into the waiting room for another brief rest, then off to the changing room and my wife awaiting with my clothes. Ahhhh.
The first thing I always did on the ride home in the taxi was eat because I had to fast before most appointments, Lupita usually had an empanada of manzana or piña, a turkey-ham sandwich and an Ensure vitamin drink. We wanted to make each drive a straight run without bathroom stops, so we always drank little until we got home.
For the ride home I couldn’t enjoy the scenery like I was anxious to do because using my good eye also caused the bandaged eye to move, and it was sore. After we arrived home around 3:30 PM, I ate a late hearty comida and fell asleep afterwards. I didn’t wake up until around midnight, but I wasn’t sure if it was morning or night. When I realized it was night, after fiddling with my tablet unsuccessfully trying to post the photo I had edited the day before with the daily Covid-19 report, I gave up and went downstairs to my office to get the daily Covid-19 report posted, albeit a little late. Then back to sleep. When the bandage came off the next day my eye was quite bloodshot and swollen, unlike after my first surgery. But I could see!
It takes a while after cataract surgery for the eye to get used to focusing on things again, but after only a few days things feel normal enough, though I tired my eyes quickly trying to work and see too much too fast.
Now everything I see is a gift to be treasured. I try to spend as much time as I can looking at my incredible and very lovely wife, mi media naranja. Color, clarity, contrasts and definition have returned to my vision. I can read books again! I can see across the bay again! I can swat mosquitos again! And I can see faces again.
“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
Joni Mitchell – “Big Yellow Taxi”