Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Doctor, My Eyes!

About thirteen months ago I had photorefractive keratectomy eye surgery.   You might not have heard of that.  You likely have heard of its less excruciating cousin, lasik.  They are actually very similar procedures with very similar outcomes.  My eyes before surgery were something like 20/600. Seriously, I couldn’t read the big E at the top...I just always said it because I knew it was there.
You’ll understand I was a little uneasy about having my eyes hacked up.  The difference between lasik and PRK is that in lasik they just open a little flap on your cornea and then put it back.  With PRK they actually remove the entire outer layer of your cornea.  Believe it or not, the reason you’d have PRK over lasik is that it does less damage to the cornea!  Less damage means less risk of catastrophic failure of the cornea to hold back the goop in your eye, especially for people like me who have thin corneas.  I believe the word they used for mine was “dainty.”  What does “dainty corneas” mean?!  Anyway, I’m all for keeping my eye goop right where it belongs, thank you.
The procedure is surprisingly short and in the moment relatively painless.  They put some drops in your eyes, and after that it just looks like you’re underwater looking out.  As long as you aren’t thinking about what they’re actually doing up there, it’s all good.  There’s a little bit of light while they cook your eye with a laser.  Just a few seconds, though.  And you can’t feel a thing.  I mean, cooking cornea doesn’t exactly smell like chocolate chip cookies or anything, but it could be a whole lot worse.
Curious.  He kept putting cold drops in my eyes.  He said, “This is going to help with the pain.”  What pain?  When it was over I stood up, saw clearly without glasses for the first time I can remember, and was ushered to another room to wait for a follow-up.  Pain free!  Those people online who complained about the recovery must be big babies.
Then my eyes started to pinch a little.  Like I had an eyelash in them or something.  Except I wasn’t allowed to touch them.  Well, that’s inconvenient.  So when the doctor came into check on me, I said, “My eyes are a little uncomfortable.”  To which he replied, “You mean like if someone PRK’ed them?”  Fair point.  He added some more drops.
After he left, I started to understand what Jesus meant when he was talking about the plank in  your own eye.  Great news, Jesus, I found it!  The doctor came back in, and I said, “They must be bleeding.  Something must be wrong.  The pain is awful.”  His answer?  Must be time for me to get home.  Because the sooner I get home, the sooner I can get the good drugs.  He put a couple more drops in and sent me packing.
I’ll never, as long as I live, forget the ride home.  My eyes were closed.  I had the stylish sunglasses they give you on (to protect my eyes from my nearly irresistible instinct to claw them out).  I had my head down in the van.  I had a blanket over my head.  I had the sun visor down.  And it still felt like I was looking straight into the sun.  We went to pick up the pain medicine (wish they’d given me that prescription ahead of time).  By the time we got home my eyes were burning so badly I was certain they were going to set my hair on fire.  That’s about when my loving wife asked if it made me feel any better that I had chosen to have this done.  No, no it didn’t.
Eye pain is the worst.  It’s not like back pain.  With back pain a lot of the time you can get yourself into a position of relief.  “Doctor, it hurts when I move my arm like this.”  “Well, don’t do that.”  Simple.  Not eye pain.  You stick your hands over them (you can’t touch them because of the plastic shields, and even if you could, actually touching them would only make it worse if there is such as thing as worse).  You turn your head from side to side and move it up and down.  No matter how athletic your moves, you can’t escape the pain.  You want nothing more than for it to be over.  You beg.  You plead.  You offer deals.  Nothing helps.  You can’t get away.
And it’s all you can think about.  The pain.  You can’t take your mind off it.  You can’t wish it away.  You can’t do anything about it.  All you can do is writhe in the long seconds which lead to minutes which lead to hours until, if you’re lucky, you find respite in sleep.
When you wake up, the pain might be better, or it might not.  If it is, at any moment it can return.  Just as strong as before.  It comes and goes unpredictably.  But then, over time, you realize that it starts to go more than it comes.  It’s a little less severe (unless you instinctively turn the light on in the bathroom...I suggest putting a piece of tape over that switch until you’re sure it’s safe).  You can deal with it.  It doesn’t control you.  Ultimately the pain becomes a memory.  A real, painful memory, but a memory nonetheless.
When I think about the times I have been emotionally hurt (emotional hurt, not depression: depression is a very different thing), it’s a lot like eye pain.  It’s consuming and relentless.  It occupies my entire consciousness.  It can’ t be escaped or avoided, only endured.  If it goes for a time, it is guaranteed to come back.  Beg.  Plead.  Offer deals.  It won’t matter.  It still hurts.
Over time, though, pain gives way to healing.  And while there may forever be scars left behind (you can see on my eyes a slight color difference where they did the PRK), the process of healing usually leaves us stronger than we were before.  Last time I went to the eye doctor, I could see 20/15...and I could even make out letter shapes on the 20/10 line.   Not bad considering the eye tech used to laugh at me.
When I see God, I’m not going to ask why bees sting, why cockroaches exist, or why kittens turn into cats.  I’m going to ask why pain is the path to growth.  I’m going to ask why we stand to gain the most from the times in life that try us the most.  I’m going to ask why it’s impossible to remember all that growth potential when you’re in the middle of the suffering.
And then I’m going to say thank you.  Because when my eyes hurt so much that I couldn’t think of anything but the pain, I had Lisa to make sarcastic comments and also take very good care of me.   That is what the church, at its best, has to offer.  Not people to keep you from getting hurt, but people to hold you when you’re hurting and keep you safe until you have healed enough to be encouraged by the growth that will follow.


  1. Oh John, part of me wants to tell you all the details about the surgery for retinal cancer (short version: they REMOVE the eye ball, put a radioactive disk behind it and put the eye ball back, then a week later, they reverse the process, and then you wait for the blindness from the radiation, which comes remarkably quickly), but really that is not fair. Pain is pain and eye pain is indeed awful. I am sorry you had to go through it.

    But isn't it wonderful? Horrible pain and then you can SEE! Not just the big E for way down the chart! A week of misery and my cancer is gone, not spreading to my liver and ending my life in pretty short order (which was the prognosis).
    How can those things be seen as anything short of miraculous? Of course we can cloak it as "science" or "medicine" but does that make it any less of a miracle?
    And God warned us all through the Bible that pain was often on the pathway to better things, whether it be healed bodies or new life. The most poignant to me is the suffering of mothers of the victims of Herod's slaughter as the Christ child grew closer to his ministry.
    But I figure God is not annoyed with our curiosity or even frustration with the growth process. I have some questions to ask Him myself. Like why such a high percentage of the stray cats that my children wanted to adopt were female and already pregnant when they showed up at my door? I know there is a reason. And I bet the explanation is less painful than eye surgery.

    1. Miracles indeed! I believe God acts in our world through us...we are, after all the body!