It’s two days before New Years. Late 2015. I am doing a morning Target run, trying to beat the crazy holiday crowds when all of a sudden a shrunken Medusa head drops from the ceiling. Just to my right. Hundreds of itty-bitty black dots are swimming in circles around her wiggly tendrils. Each minute new ones crash the party.
Here I am, frozen in the middle of the aisle, staring at the ceiling and thinking this is some weird-ass Target promotion for God-knows-what. But customers are pushing their carts around me, oblivious to the dancing head and that’s when I get really scared. Could it be me? Could this be a detached retina? My husband rushes me to the local emergency room where the crackerjack team diagnoses a posterior vitreous detachment. That’s the good news. My retina is okay. But it’s in my right eye. My good eye. I am legally blind in my left. Is this my new normal? Medusa hell.
What to do? I make a follow-up appointment to see a retina specialist and then write a blog about what happened, tap, tap, tapping through a gunky haze. I call it, appropriately enough, “Floaters.” The blog is funny, educational, it’s full of pictures and you can read it by clicking here. I hope you do because this blog is central to the rest of the story.
The Rest Of The Story — July 2017
The word “floaters” is innocuous enough. Some people “see” bugs—flies, gnats—that zip into view or hover like tiny helicopters. They swat them away. Good luck with that…
I have bugs too AND Medusa who is hanging out–right, left and center. Sometimes I’m looking through Medusa when I look at you. The medical term for this is a Weiss Ring—a circle of dark protein that is really really annoying. It’s the fallout from that magic moment when my vitreous membrane decided to divorce the back of my eye.
But in my case, there’s more… Clouds of gauze and slithery worms roll between me and my computer screen. And the television. I actually changed the channel once because CBS was all foggy. It wasn’t them. I can’t drive at night anymore because of the glare from headlights, any lights. I’m seeing halos that I thought were strictly the domain of heaven. Unless heaven is Wilshire Boulevard. One day I’m okay, the next day THIS happens.
Not long after I send out my Floater blog, I get an email from “happy uke player” who is on my e-list. She tells me about her friend. The one who had floaters too.
Yes HAD because this friend found a doctor who uses a specialized laser treatment that gets rid of them. Are you kidding me?
I contact her friend, whom I shall call Miss Floater-Free, and we talk on the phone. She describes her floaters to me. I describe mine to her. When I try to explain my “situation” to people who don’t have floaters, they kind of nod and glaze over. But she gets it. Miss Floater-Free tried special glasses and eye exercises. She spoke at length with the experts–eye docs. They told her she’ll get used to it. Don’t you just want to throw-up when someone says that to you?
So she scours the Internet. This is a woman who does her due diligence and she generously invites me along for the ride. Miss Floater-Free tells me she found THREE, ophthalmologists in the WHOLE United States who use the YAG laser to treat floaters. One in Virginia, one in Texas and one in Irvine, California. She books a flight to see the Virginia guy. In two consecutive treatments her floaters are zapped away. She pays the bill and presents him with a bouquet of flowers.
My floater-free friend warns me that eye doctors will dismiss my problem and tell me there’s nothing they can do. And THAT is exactly what happens. I understand that this isn’t about going blind. This isn’t about glaucoma or macular degeneration. But folks, I’ve got a freaking zoo in my eye.
The first retina specialist I see at the prestigious university hospital takes a quick look-see, hands me a “floater information packet” (the what, why, where, who cares of floaters) and shuffles me out the door. He should have just given me a lollipop and a pat on my head considering the way he blows me off. I get a second opinion. The new guy rates higher on the empathy bell curve, but still spews the company line: “You’ll get used to it.” And diss-diss on the YAG laser treatment (which by the way, has been around for over twenty-five years). Even my kindly optometrist tells me it will get better and why would I want to take the chance on some little-known laser thing with my one good eye? The real floater docs, it appears, are outliers.
I like outliers.
But I wait anyway. I wait a year and half and the floaters do not go away. In fact they get worse. I roll my eyes around in circles like I’m channeling Marty Feldman in the movie “Young Frankenstein,” trying to swoosh the “stuff” out of the front row. This works. Until it doesn’t. I email Miss Floater-Free again. “How are you doing? I ask. She writes back that the floaters are gone and have stayed gone. But now she has floaters in her other eye and she’s booking another trip to Virginia.
And just like that my husband and I drive one hour south on the 405 Freeway and land in Irvine, California, face to face with Dr. James Johnson. An outlier, indeed. Some have suggested I am very courageous to do this but I respectfully disagree. I have no choice.
With a big-as-your-hand 3-D model of an eyeball that opens in half to reveal the exciting innards that inform our vision, a nifty white board which Dr. Johnson props up between us (the man writes upside down so I can read it right-side up) and various other visual aids that includes Handi-Wrap (“membrane” material), he explains to me what happened and what is happening now. Finally I get it. I “see” it. No pun. We all see it… Lordy, he has beautifully framed pictures of floaters on his walls… If I didn’t know better I’d swear I’m looking at the Hubble Space Telescope’s “best of…”
I fill out lots of forms including the one where he asks how bad the floaters are on a scale of 1 to 100. 100 being awful, miserable, the worst. I check 100. Well…they seem really bad to me. Obviously this floater thing is very subjective because when he dilates my eyes and takes a “vitreous” tour Dr. Johnson tells me it’s not THAT bad. There IS Medusa however and, as he describes it, the vitreous membrane that detached from my retina is undulating like a wave through the gooey gel in the back of my eye, folding over and producing the panes of opaque that drift across my central vision. Actually floaters cast a shadow over the retina, like an eclipse, and that shadow is what we floater people see.
But hallelujah, Dr. Johnson understands how something like this impacts my life. I feel validated. FINALLY. What a freaking relief. There are no guarantees in medicine but he is confident that Medusa is a goner.
“Does it hurt?” I ask. “The laser treatment?” Dr. Johnson grins and says “I won’t feel a thing.” Meaning HE doesn’t feel a thing. Oh ha ha ha. But he quickly adds “no it doesn’t hurt.”
Well then let’s do it!” He drops a local anesthetic in my right eye and sits me in front of the laser, which looks like the “glaucoma-tester” machine to me. Well except it’s not. He places a fancy contact lens over my eye, secures my head with a Velcro strap and tells me to look that-a-way. And just like that the video game begins. He’s working a joystick and my eye is the target and “I” am the observer. It’s the strangest thing.
Pow, pow, pow. A couple red lights spark and I see Medusa floating in a sea of bright psychedelic light. Pow. Medusa jiggles and a tendril turns into tiny droplets that fall south. Pow, pow. Another tendril, more droplets. He pow pows the body of the Weiss Ring. Within minutes there is hardly anything left. Medusa has been vaporized. Her diaphanous mass turned into miniscule gas bubbles that float away.
Now he gets to work on the other gauzy stuff. Dr. Johnson will eventually do 729 laser hits. About average. We are done for today.
Mole rats have big teeth and can’t see. I feel like a mole rat. For a few seconds. The bright lights of the laser treatment have rendered the room one big weird blur. But soon I can see the wall. No Medusa. And the ceiling. No Medusa. OMG!
During this treatment, Dr. Johnson took a short video of Medusa’s demise. It runs about four minutes and includes his commentary on what’s happening. You can watch by clicking here. Don’t get thrown off by the incorrect date stamp, which he forgot to change, this is me, myself and eye! The gas bubbles actually “go up” in this video because that’s what gas bubbles do, but I see them “go down” because the eye and the brain commiserate to mess with reality. Whatever “reality” is…
Follow-Up — September 2017
Since that first visit with Dr. Johnson in late July, I have had two more treatments on my right eye and two on my goofy left eye with its double-dancing fur balls (a Weiss Ring that split in half).
The improvement is not 100% but it is startling and significant. I was encouraged to temper my expectations because some floaters are easier to treat than others. I can tell when the laser is not making a solid connection because it goes “ping” instead of “pow” and I don’t see the bubbly remnants float away. Gunk that is too close to the retina is off-limits. That testy diaphanous vitreous membrane still slinks around like a snake through the goo in the back of my eye. The laser just bounces off of it like a wisp of breeze that flutters a curtain. Tiny strands float through the lens of my life. But it is SO much better now. The Weiss Rings are gone and so are the psychedelic halos at night. Darkness is sweeter again.
If you have floaters that are driving you crazy or know someone who is swatting away imaginary flies, you may want to do some exploring. I’ve included links to various resources below. I suggest you find a doctor who has experience with The YAG laser technique. I am impressed with Dr. Johnson’s knowledge and expertise. I especially appreciate his candor about the benefits and limitations of this procedure. His entire practice is floaters and nothing but. People fly in from parts far and farther to make his acquaintance and get zapped. But medicine is an art, not an exact science, and no two cases are alike nor will they have the same outcomes.
So if we are lucky we get another birthday and another…and our body parts wear out and wear down. They detach and droop and leak and dry up and… What to do? Grab your ukulele and play a song.
A bouquet of thanks to “happy uke player” and “Miss Floater Free.” Perhaps I would have learned about the Yag laser eventually but these women expedited this journey of restoration for me and I am immensely grateful. And glad to pass the information along to you.
Ted-Ed Talk: “What Are Those Floaty Things In Your Eye” (Four minutes long). Click Here.
Vitrectomy is an eye surgery that drains and then replaces the vitreous fluid in the back of the eye. According to my doctor this is the gold standard for sweeping floaters onto their next life. But there are significant risks associated with this procedure and with only one good eye it’s not an option for me. Click Here for more details.
James H. Johnson, M.D. is my doctor. His office is located in Irvine, California. Click Here.
Video of Dr. Johnson zapping away the Weiss Ring in my right eye (4½ minutes long) Click here.
John Karickhoff, M.D. pioneered this YAG laser technique and is located in Falls Church, Virginia. Click Here.
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Here’s a POSTSCRIPT from my last blog Jeopardy.
A few of you thought I was a contestant on Jeopardy and, gasp, won $50,000. Welcome to Fantasyland folks.
Here’s the scoop: A mock podium adjoins the studio at Sony where audience members can “play pretend” and get a picture of themselves faking it.
Some others thought I was actually getting cozy with the real Alex Trebek here. Good one… The Emmys are real. Alex is cardboard.
The red tag stuck to my right thigh says “Jeopardy! Production Guest”
It’s now stuck to my desk. A nice reminder of my visit to television land.