Just about six months ago, during a routine eye exam, my optometrist excitedly made use of an instrument that was new to that particular office, one that enabled her to look at my optic nerves, which to that date had never been seen before. What she discovered was that the cups of my optic nerves seemed large. This is one of the first signs of glaucoma. And yet, she reasoned, my optic nerve cups could just simply be larger than average (of all the luck!), but she couldn’t really know since she’d never seen them before. She recommended that I see an ophthalmologist (seriously, did you know that’s how that word is spelled?) and finally, yesterday in fact, that day arrived.
Moments before I left my house, I noticed on my appointment card a tiny note that indicated the appointment would take from two to three hours. That couldn’t possibly be right.
When I got to the office, I noticed immediately that I was the youngest person in the waiting room by at least 25 years. I thought of that Erica Jong quote about how, when she turned 50, she realized she would never be the youngest or cutest person in the room again. Yet here I was at 45, and I was exactly that! How good potential glaucoma is for the ego!
Soon I was brought into the back rooms for what seemed like eight hours of testing and flashing lights and eye drops, but was really the aforementioned two to three hours. In the first room, I was given a regular eye exam by a woman who told me that my regular optometrist was known for being very cautious. It was strange how even with contacts and then glasses my right eye could not see the eye chart. This was noted but not really explored. Then I was taken into another room to have the pressure of my eyes tested. I asked if that was going to be that thing where that puff of air shoots into your eye (and if you’ve ever had it done then you know that the anticipation of that feels like waiting for someone to jump out at you in a dark alley). But no, she assured me, almost smirking. We don’t do that kind of test here. And what she did instead was so totally fine that I was tricked into thinking the rest of my time there would be similarly fine. This was not to be the case.
I was taken into another room where my visual field was tested. Basically, glaucoma causes a slow deterioration of your peripheral vision to the point that you can end up with tunnel vision before you go blind. However! If it is caught early (that’s what I’m doing there) you can slow down the process with daily eye drops. The second lab tech who gave me the visual field test chatted with me about the strange wording of one of the questions on a sheet I had to fill out, which led to a conversation about forms with grammatical errors and I was so pleased to be in a room with this kindred spirit that I felt optimistic about the visual field test, which was short-lived. Basically you put your face up to this screen and stare at a fixed point of light while pin pricks of light flash all over the place and you have to push a button every time you see one, which is every single second. It was totally grueling and made me kind of miserable. The weirdest part is how my mind wandered and then I would think, Wait, what am I supposed to be doing? Oh no, wait, the light! I completely forgot to look at the light! When I talked to the lab tech about this, between eyes, she mentioned that sometimes people fall asleep during the test, which is five minutes per side. They really can’t stay awake for five minutes? I asked. To which she replied that it was sometimes much older people, but occasionally it was a young mom, simply so exhausted that the five minutes quietly staring at a light in a warm room made her fall asleep.
I thought about those days as an exhausted young mom, which are really indescribable unless you’ve lived it. My friend Sarah did a pretty good job of capturing it by pointing out that every time night would come you’d be initially thrilled that it was nearly bedtime, but then would become immediately heartbroken realizing that “bedtime” meant not a delicious eight hours of sleep, but maybe one or two hours before being woken up, over and over again, until it was morning. Had I been given the chance to stare quietly at tiny points of light for five minutes in a dark room back then I surely would have fallen asleep instantly.
After the visual field test, I went back to the room with the first lab tech and there were more tests in which I had to stare straight ahead while light flashed into my eyes. I had drops put into my eyes, and also yellow dye, which left me with yellow tears. Then I had more drops put in to dilate my pupils and I went into another waiting room for a bit. An elderly man was talking to an elderly couple. The single elderly man had to keep leaning way over just to hear what the couple were saying to him and at one point he mentioned that when you turn 80 everything starts to go. I looked at that man and I am dead serious when I say he did not look a day over 70. He had 23 great grandkids, he informed the couple. Then when the man of the couple was brought to another room the single man continued talking to the woman. They talked about kids today. “These computers are maybe the best thing that ever happened!” he informed the woman, then admitted he didn’t know much about them.
I was taken into another room with a third lab tech and was given another test where I had to keep my eyes open wide while, again, lights flashed at them. I don’t remember what it was for.
Then it was time to see The Doctor. Before he entered the room, a fourth lab tech, a scribe actually, came in, so that The Doctor could mutter numbers and things and she, the scribe, would write everything down. The Doctor came in with a flourish and then proceeded to give me the absolute worst of all the tests of that day, which involved holding my eyelids open with an instrument (think “A Clockwork Orange”) (I’m not even kidding) and then shining fierce lights into them and demanding that I stare straight ahead and not blink. He wasn’t a bad guy really. I was most impressed when I saw him draw two circles and make notes on them. My eyes! After the first eye, I truly felt like I was going to throw up and The Doctor let me rest while the scribe brought me a cup of cold water. Then it was the same horrible thing on the other side.
After all of this, The Doctor determined that the only thing that was really abnormal was that the cups of my optic nerves seemed large. But, of course, he couldn’t know anything else since this was the first time he’d seen me. So I have to come back in six months. And cry more yellow tears.