“Paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world, receiving the gifts with open eyes and open heart.”- Robin Wall Kimmerer
This is a different and longer blog than usual. After encouragement by my friend Brock Evans, I decided to share my story, because of the many ways our lives are affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and to call attention to how lonely it can be to enter a place where only patients are allowed without an advocate. We all need advocates–people and all beings and wildlands too.
How natural it is to wake in the morning and blink our sleepy eyelids open to see. Right now, the opening of my eyes feels like the grace notes of a goldfinch, a searing of gratitude.
On September 20th, I entered the day with two working eyes. I was nervous about the double surgeries ahead. The first would be in the hands of the dermatologist surgeon Dr. Delgado, skilled in what’s called MOHS surgery (removing layers of skin cells until free of cancer). The basal cell carcinoma began in the outside left corner of my eyelid as a tiny red bump that would not go away and then began to spread.
My first surgery went according to plan, a two-hour experience and relatively painless (thanks to numbing medication), but strange to have anyone working so close to your eye even if covered with a solid contact lens. I left with a white bandage over my eye and another on my upper left temple, where 14 stitches marked where Dr. Delgado had taken off a second skin cancer. Standing up, I realized how unsteady I was and that it would be impossible to wear my glasses. My right eye is very near-sighted. I willingly accepted a nurse’s hand to guide me to Wes waiting outside in the car.
Next stop? Bend Surgery Center. There, I was scheduled for oculoplastic surgery. Coronavirus protocols meant Wes could not come in. That protocol would soon prove problematic and empathy building. It was not a good day at the Center. The Covid screening machines at St. Charles Hospital had broken down over the weekend and many people scheduled before me did not have their results. Instead, they were marched out to get a new test. While I’d had the Moderna vaccine and the required negative Covid test result from Summit Health, I remained in my set place in line. There’s an operating room protocol, too.
My second surgery was delayed nearly six hours. My eye ached, my head ached, and I was thirsty and hungry. I had not been able to eat or drink since the night before in anticipation of anesthesia (and I’m a coffee drinker). The world was a blur. I found my way to the restroom by fumbling along walls, listening to the receptionists behind glass chatting like chickadees. They never checked on me or offered to help, but I reminded myself their work was likely difficult and thankless. A male nurse came out once to tell me about the delay and suggested I could leave and come back. Astounded at the thought of trying to navigate the hallway and elevator alone again, and to go through the difficulties of re-entry without a fall, I tried to bring his fuzzy face into focus. I could tell he was kind, but had no idea of my condition. Instead, I told him I’d stay put.
After I first heard the news from the nurse, I put my head down and felt tears quickly turning to pain behind the bandage. No crying allowed, I told myself. I stood up and put my hands on the windowsill where I could feel the sun and adjusted the volume on my headphones louder to block out the noise of drills and construction in the hallway.
I found a ray of calm then in the heat of sun slanting in, and for the gift of an engrossing audiobook, which took me far away to another time in London during World War II. The title of the Jacqueline Winspear mystery felt a little too relevant, The Consequences of Fear. I endured by escapism and calling up the powers I’d employed in long running races in the past. I had a vague sense of a few other people coming and going in the waiting room, and wondered if anyone else was like me, sitting there for hours. What would another person do who was more fragile? More scared? In more pain? We were all so alone.
At last, my luck changed in the form of a funny and kind anesthesiologist. She took one look at me, smiled, and then offered the best words possible. “You look like you need a big glass of wine and I’m here to give you one,” as she lifted her syringe. We both laughed as I extended my arm.
That was after I’d moved from the reception area to a bed where I sat another two hours in a small room. By then, Dr. Fitzsimmons, the oculoplastic surgeon with a stellar reputation as a skilled perfectionist, had removed the bandage and taken a close look.
“Well, it’s not horrible, but….it’s tricky.” He explained I was missing a third of my lower eyelid, the corner, and part of the upper eyelid too–all gone to remove the cancer. He would need to perform two surgeries. The first would be to create a working eyelid. Because the the upper and lower were involved, he’d stitch my eyelid partially closed. After six weeks he would perform the second surgery to restore full vision and an eyelid matching the right one.
Two hours later, I woke up groggy and have little memory of what followed, except how fabulous it felt to be reunited with Wes who had waited in various places all day long, from 7:30 am to 7:30 pm by the time he helped me totter into our kitchen. The saga was not quite over as I said to him, “Why does my hand hurt?” I held my hand out and we stared in shock. The IV port was still there, stuck into a vein–a little terrifying to us who know nothing about nursing. I won’t go into the details of pulling it out, but our conclusion? Yes–it was a very long day for the Bend Surgery Center folks too. Compassion. Empathy. I could not be upset. Their lives already have been upset far too often in the time of Covid.
I was home and learning to see with one eye, and to embrace audiobooks in full, including Owls of the Eastern Ice, which took me on a romp to the far eastern wilds of Russia seeking the elusive Blakiston’s fishing owl. Each day improved, beginning by walking unsteadily as if through moonlight with no depth perception and vision limited to what was immediately below. When I opened my right eye, my then bruised and swollen shut left eyelid wanted to open, too, and that hurt. So I squinted and closed my eyes a lot. Once, I made the mistake of listening to an audiobook novel with characters who cried, always a recipe for tears. Ouch. Pain again.
In a few days, I could walk outside with a black eye patch and two trekking poles. I was still unable to see the trees and sky and surroundings without stopping and swiveling my head side to side like an owl (absent the full rotation ) or up like a kingfisher pointing a beak skyward.
I could not go far without aggravating the swollen eyelid, so I would return to our home haven of a front yard. There, I sat in a chair, closed my eyes, and listened to the comings and goings of mountain chickadees, lesser goldfinches, pygmy nuthatches, and pine siskins. I’d startle to the squawk of a Steller’s jay or the pik pik of a hairy woodpecker, and the whirring of hummingbird wings I could not see, envisioning the flash of magenta on an Anna’s hummingbird throat and scaled wings of emerald. I could conjure the sway and lean of blooming sunflowers and the sparkle of ponderosa pine needles against a sea blue sky.
A week after the surgery, my left eye began to emerge like a shy lizard peering from beneath a rock ledge. “There you are,” I said softly. At once, my world flowered with dual vision, even if missing the periphery. Three dimensions returned. I could read and write without such weariness. When the surgeon removed numerous stitches at day 10, I could see even better. He gave me the welcome news that in a week I could resume all activities until the second surgery (upcoming on November 5th).
My world is brighter, my sense of clarity and appreciation deepened. I am greedy for the illuminations of autumn light upon leaves changing colors to a harvest palette of beet, pumpkin, butternut squash, and carrot. I revel at the fine details, silently or aloud. I notice what I cannot see, missing what is at the periphery of my left field of vision, and remembering to turn my head for a fuller view.
The human body is a remarkable bit of wonder, often able to heal and adjust for a loss. During the first nine days of wearing a protective eye patch, I depended on my trekking poles like a mountaineer crossing steep icy slopes, until one fateful afternoon when my son Ian called me on his walk back from the University of Montana library. I was so excited to chat and join him as if strolling together that I grabbed the leash for our dog Pepper and headed down the street –sans poles. Enlightenment! I didn’t need them anymore. I was steadier, balanced, the sailor with her sea legs.
I am fortunate. My eye is unharmed. I’m in the hands of an extraordinary oculoplastic surgeon and I have health insurance. I live with a supportive husband and a laid back labrador content to curl under my desk with her head on my bare feet. The day after the surgeries, my friend Gail stayed all day with me and brought her delicious chicken veggie quinoa soup. Out my window is the constancy and dynamism of our rewilded tangle of flowers and birds.
At the same time, I’m reminded of so many who are alone and those who may be losing their vision in one or both eyes. They are brave and they do “see” with other senses. I think, too, of my mother who endured several glaucoma surgeries in her later years. While I was there at her side, I could not know what it was like until now. I miss her. I want to tell her what happened, to share our stories, and to see her shining, big brown beautiful owl eyes again.
Now I can cry. The tears still sting in the left corner of my eye, but oh so worth it. Tears can be like headwater springs merging into rivulets to become creeks and then rivers flowing with our shared humanity. They remind us to be kind, cooperative, and empathetic for others whose stories we do not know. With my renewal of seeing comes a promise to go beyond a glance to look deeply and to become a better advocate for others.
In my perfect world, everyone in the U.S. would have taken the vaccine by now and Covid-19 would have retreated. All of us would realize how lucky we are in this country to have the opportunity to get a free Covid vaccine, while across the world so many people are suffering, because they have no access. We would want to find ways to extend our wealth to others far less fortunate. We would be a society that values science, doctors, and facts, and not influenced by quack doctors, self-serving talk hosts, and social media influencers pedaling untruths. Politics of divisiveness would be gone. We would not have crossed a terrible threshold of more than 700,000 people dead in our country. We would accept that taking the Covid vaccine and wearing masks are acts of generosity.
In this imperfect world, I have a specific question from my experience in the time of Covid. Can we do more to help patients who are forced to be alone in surgery centers ? Could people volunteer to be companions in waiting rooms? I didn’t need someone at my side all day, but oh it would have been lovely (and safer) to have a helping hand as I fumbled my way from the entry, to the elevator, to the waiting room, and to the restroom. How much it would have given my spirits a lift to keep me updated and to offer a kind, sympathetic word now and then. I welcome your thoughts, experiences, and solutions. With my second surgery coming up, I have an opportunity to advocate in advance–not just for myself, but for all who are there.
Meanwhile, I will continue to draw strength and renewal in the daily dance of fall colors, floating red-tailed hawks on a north wind, and always the kingfisher whisking the sunlight above the Deschutes River.