Today’s story, Seeing Eye to Eye, would not let me rest until it found its own way into words. It’s a slice of time and change between two lives and where they intersect and learn new ways of moving forward.
Most everyone has either overcome or learned to cope with health and wellness challenges in life. And I can say with equal parts of gratitude and just plain luck, that my journey, thus far at least, has not experienced anywhere near the kinds of serious and life-changing health issues that many people face and live with constantly day by day.
For years my eyes have been my personal battleground. I’ve had glaucoma in both eyes for almost 30 years, but thanks to medication and infrequent laser surgeries, the impact of glaucoma upon my day-to-day routines has been manageable. A far greater concern is the retinal occlusion I have in my right eye. To control swelling capillaries that severely reduces my vision, I receive eye injections about every 15 weeks or so. The procedure isn’t fun, but it helps to retain my eye’s vision for which I’m truly grateful.
When seeing suddenly changed…
Last summer, after what should have been routine cataract surgery in my right eye, something went wrong. The stitches bled and my cornea swelled and buckled and the pain was so intense it forced me to leave our annual Quaker conference in an ambulance for the hospital E.R. After seven hours of I.V. pain meds and special eye drops the pain and pressures dropped enough for my wife, Betty Ann, to drive us home in the middle of the night, abandoning any thoughts of returning to our conference.
Early the next morning I was sitting in my ophthalmologist’s office for more eye treatments. As painful as that whole episode was, I was relieved that the E.R. doc saved my vision in that eye. Still, Betty Ann and I, now back at home, found ourselves missing very much our spiritual community of fellow Quakers some 200 miles away.
Here’s where things get strange
Within three days after arriving home, we noticed that our dog Gracie’s left eye had become cloudy and then quickly turned blue. While I was keeping back-and-forth appointments with my own ophthalmologist and retina specialist, Betty Ann was traveling with Gracie to see an animal ophthalmologist 35 miles away.
I continued to heal, but the news for Grace was not good. She had suddenly developed glaucoma, causing her to lose her vision in that eye. We decided not to remove her eye and instead treat it with glaucoma medication three times a day. The freaky thing was that her medication was the very same eye drops that I use, too. For the next 12 months Gracie’s medication worked and she showed few negative effects of getting around with vision in just one eye.
To be honest, it was hard not to conclude that Gracie had taken a personal “hit” for me. Within less than a week the vision in my eye was saved and Gracie’s was lost. Of course, intellectually, that doesn’t make sense. It was just a coincidence. Or was it?
The seasons changed and before we knew it we were back in the middle of summer one year later. My glaucoma remained in check, and scheduled eye injections to treat my retinal occlusion kept most of my vision intact in my right eye. We were packing up and preparing to attend our Quaker conference once again, this time looking forward, hopefully, not having to leave suddenly like we did last year.
A day before we were scheduled to leave for this year’s gathering of New England Quakers I let Gracie out to do her business before heading to bed. She went out and came back in on her own as usual. A half-hour later we went to bed, but we were aware that Gracie was still downstairs, when ordinarily she would have been two steps behind us heading up to our bedroom. It sounded like she was banging into things downstairs so I dashed down to investigate. To our horror, it quickly became clear that Gracie could not see at all.
The next morning we were back in the animal ophthalmologist’s office to discover that Gracie now had glaucoma in her right eye, too. On top of that, the meds were no longer controlling the pressures in her left eye that went blind the year before. At first we hoped the meds would work and that she’d get her right eye’s vision back. But sadly, within a few days, Gracie lost any chance of regaining her vision in that eye, too, as the optic nerve was now damaged just like her other eye. She was now totally blind. We were devastated, in shock and in disbelief.
Here we were, one year later almost to the day, after my close call with my own eye and Gracie losing vision in her left eye—and once again, on the cusp of leaving for our annual Quaker gathering. It seemed surreal. Since Betty Ann’s role at this conference involved running a large program with many children and staff, and I had back-up folks in place to step in to attend to ministry as the pastoral counselor, we decided that I would stay home and Betty Ann would attend our annual gathering of fellow Quakers. I will admit that my wife had the harder assignment. I at least had the advantage of caring for—okay, hovering over, our four-legged brave dog, hour by hour, while Betty Ann could only worry from afar.
Despite a rigorous treatment plan Gracie now had glaucoma in both eyes, and was completely blind. Worse yet, the medication was not controlling the pressures and rapidly increasing pain. We had two choices. The first was never under consideration. In order to control her mounting pressure levels, both eyes had to be removed immediately in order to eliminate the pain she was clearly in. Making that decision was hell. And it was the correct decision. Fortunately, we had the means to pay for the surgery and the time to help Gracie heal. Gracie’s diseased eyeballs would be removed and replaced with silicone prosthesis, leaving her own corneas and irises intact. I dropped her off for the surgery on a Friday morning and had all I could do to make it back to the van before starting to cry.
I picked her up just four hours after having both her eyes removed. Just four hours! The ophthalmologist vet, Dr. Dennis Donohue, said that Gracie would be better off recovering at home. It was hard to believe, but when I returned to pick her up, she was wagging her tail and hopping up and down, obviously very happy to “see” me! Of course she had to wear the “cone” around her head until healing advanced, but she did better coping with it than we did, or I did, to be honest. The same night that Gracie came home, Betty Ann also returned from our Quaker gathering. Their reunion was, well, beyond words. Within minutes “Nurse Betty” was back. I knew it, and most especially, Gracie did too.
At three weeks post-op Gracie is making good progress in recovery. She’s off the “cone of shame,” as they call it, and some of her meds are being reduced as well. She’s already learned to “map” the house and navigate steps leading in and out. With assistance, she’s getting the hang of going up and down the narrow, steep stairs leading to our bedroom.
But the dog who loved a good off-leash romp along the beach and through the dunes or who bounded full-tilt around the yard chasing squirrels, who sat sitting up and looking out in the front seat of the van for a ride across town, of course, has changed. She moves more cautiously (thank goodness) but deliberately and with amazing determination to get to places she can no longer see. And she loves just as much riding in the van and exploring on-leash new and familiar haunts, knowing that the guy on the leash’s other end uses his eyes and voice (“watch it! Or “step” and “back up”) to help her avoid sudden obstacles or danger. And all the while Gracie is teaching me new lessons and has me wondering.
Would I, if I ever lost my vision, be as courageous, or learn new ways of living as quickly and with such a “let’s go” attitude that Gracie clearly possesses? I’m not so sure.
Over the past few weeks Betty Ann has helped me to be less fearful of providing for Gracie’s care as we nudge, and she strives, to do almost all of the things she did before going blind. In just a span of barely three weeks, Gracie began maneuvering with ease around the house unguided, and now goes outside, with one of us following behind, off-leash, to do her business, to sniff around and to lie down in the shade to catch the waves of smells that waft by. Just over the past few days Gracie has relearned where the Invisible Fence “line” is and miraculously knows how to avoid it. Not even a month post-op, this four-year-old black wonder signals her desire to go outside, alone, and find a shady spot to stretch out for a nap.
New ways of seeing eye to eye
On one hand all this may seem like a minor moment in the grand scheme of worldly concerns. But it’s a slice of our world at the moment. The recent challenge of caring for one of God’s creatures, named Gracie, has brought not only change for her and us, but for me with my own eye issues, a new understanding of the phrase “seeing eye to eye” and embracing what is new and what matters most.
Gracie seeks assurance and love above all else with her heightened remaining senses of hearing, smell and awareness of touch from whiskers and hairs all over her body. I’m satisfied that I’ve got the love part down just fine, but chuckle to myself knowing that my eye-to-hand coordination is not what it once was, that I bag my head all over the place and that I sometimes reach for a magnifying glass with its built-in light so that I can read the fine print with my two eyes still working best they can.
In the meantime I get to use up, in my own eyes, the glaucoma meds that Gracie now no longer needs. How weird is that? And how lucky, too, am I?
Text and photos by K. Lee
I’d like to give a shout-out to Paula at Blind Dog Support, a Web site packed with very useful resources, forums and support from other owners of blind dogs. Anyone who finds themselves suddenly caring for a blind dog should check this site out.