Every once in a while, the tables turn and your own life experiences stare back at you. It is an odd feeling, to view things from the other side.
I have been going to the ophthalmologist each week, like a good patient, to patiently sit while he burns my retina. The lasering itself is only slightly uncomfortable (probably more anxiety-driven discomfort than anything else) and is relatively short. Every week my mother calls me on my way to the appointment to wish me well and express her distress over her being so far away from me. Her calls are like a warm hug and ease my pre-appointment jitters. And she is always the first person I call after I’m out, though the conversation is always the same. She expresses her pride that I am doing what I need to do to stay healthy, and then offers to fly up to be with me for the next appointment. It is sweet, but silly.
She did finally fly up to visit with my father, though not because of my eyes. We had long planned a visit over Labor Day weekend with a short stop-over in New York to attend the U.S. Open tennis tournament. It was a wonderful weekend, and I didn’t think about my eyes and the damaged retinas inside of them as they followed those tennis balls back and forth across the tennis court. Things were good.
But over breakfast the next morning I could tell something was wrong - though not with me. My mother looked like she hadn’t slept at all. She told me that throughout the previous day she had seen “floaters” in her right eye and before bed she saw a series of “lightning-like” flashes in her right eye. We only briefly covered common eye problems in medical school, but I remembered enough to be concerned that she was possibly experiencing a retinal detachment.
I quickly called my ophthalmologist and explained, but the doctors were in the operating room that day. The nurse recommended an optometrist that the office trusts, and thanks to some amazing luck he was able and willing to squeeze my mother into his schedule for an urgent dilated eye exam.
As we drove to the appointment, I felt my mother’s stress build the same way mine does before my eye appointments. I held her hand as we walked toward a scenario I thought was only ever going to pertain to me.
I took a seat near my mother’s exam chair and, in an effort to lighten things up, chatted up the optometrist. I joked about how I had been spending so much time with eye doctors lately given my recent diabetic retinopathy. His own eyes widened, and he shared that he has had Type 1 Diabetes for 20 years as well, and that he too is on a pump. Even though it had no bearing on his examination skills, our common bond somehow put me at ease. And he was wonderful with my extremely nervous mother, speaking softly and answering her questions clearly.
Her retina had not detached, but her posterior vitreous had. He explained to her that the gel in the eye shrinks with age, and the vast majority of older people experience this. The shrinking gel causes some pull on the retina, causing the flashes and floaters. She is at risk of retinal detachment as it shrinks further, but the risk is small and it will be caught early if it does happen. It just needs to be watched.
As we walked out of the office, again hand in hand, I better understood why she always wishes she was there with me during my own appointments. Health scares are scary for the whole family, not just the patient.
The tables may have turned on us that day, but I am so grateful I was able to sit right next to her.