Quite a Christmas

I’ve just had quite an unusual couple of weeks.  I was supposed to be playing double bass in Handel’s Messiah the weekend before Christmas. Looking through the music a day or two before, I started to get eye problems and, to cut a long story short, I found myself back in the James Cook eye clinic. They’ve treated me before and I knew I was in good hands. This time they diagnosed a detached retina.

Eye operations are something everyone hopes they’ll get through life without needing. It helped that as I sat waiting, the patient who had been in before me came out. He looked fine. The staff gave him a cup of coffee and a biscuit – something to look forward to, I decided. The surgeon came out to see me. I felt a moment of worry: there was obviously not long to go. He gave off an aura of cheerful confidence. He examined my eye and explained how he wanted to remove the gel from it, freeze my retina back into place and replace the gel with a gas bubble. He told me the success rate was 80%. “But don’t worry,” he added. “If necessary, we’ll just do it again.” He smiled reassuringly, as if it was all in a days work which, for him, of course, it was. It was impossible not to trust him. His hypnotic bedside manner was such that I almost looked forward to the procedure, which was to be carried out under local anaesthetic, like, er, now.

The only mildly uncomfortable, scary bit was the administration of the anaesthetic – and even then the thought was worse than the reality (and far less unpleasant than dental injections). They wheeled me into the theatre and laid a blue sheet with an eye-sized hole in it over my face. From then on all I could see through my right eye was a pale glow. Someone held my hand. I could feel movement, but no pain. Could I move my eye, I asked? “Yes,” said the surgeon, “we’ve got tricks for that. Do what you like.” I felt as if I was blinking and looking round but, in fact, all the time my eyelid was pulled back and the eye held still. Now and again I saw ghostly silhouettes of unfamiliar instruments: I had no idea what they were actually being used for. The surgeon asked an assistant to pass him the “flute needle” – whatever that is. Once or twice, I experienced slight soreness – but nothing more than an itch you’d want to scratch. When I mentioned it, they upped the anaesthetic. The sound effects were intriguing: hums, pings, clicks and a machine that sounded like a service-station air pump. At one point I experienced a kaleidoscopic display of squiggly shapes.

I think it took about an hour. Looking back, I don’t think of it as dangerous, potentially painful experience but as an hour of my life when I felt supremely cared for. At the end, I was helped into a wheel-chair, taken out to the ward, to be sat in the armchair recently vacated by my predecessor and given the regulation cup of coffee. I called George, my five-star next door neighbour, who was waiting to drive me home.

And it was all “free at the point of delivery” as they say. The NHS is a great thing, its existence one of this country’s most convincing claims to be civilised. Any politician who seeks to undermine it or  underfund it will get short shrift from me.

For the following week, I had to lie on my left side for fifty minutes in every hour to allow the gas-bubble to rest against the repair to my retina. This was the most onerous part of the whole business: not only for me but also for my partner, who was left with a great deal to do. I ate a reduced Christmas dinner in ten minutes and had a wonderful Christmas, I have to say, despite the limitations. Friends visited and, a few days later, my children dropped in for an evening and a morning- having efficiently booked themselves into nearby accommodation. Other days were less fun. Night (headphones, Radio 3) blended into day. Two days after the operation I had pools of intense white light fading in and out of my vision. Was all that work falling to pieces? I didn’t look forward to going through it all again. The lights faded and everything went well after that. After a week, I discovered a few weird things about restricting your posture. Sometimes when I had my eyes closed I thought I was sitting upright. In fact I was lying down. Also, when I tried walking around, I found my balance was affected and my body started to “list” when I stood up.

The gas bubble dissolves over a few weeks.  A few days ago, looking out was like looking through a jam jar half full of water, the surface wobbling as my head moved. As I type, the bubble has reduced to a blob not unlike the bubble in a spirit level. At least I know if I’m standing up straight – useful, after all those days of lying down.

And what can I see? My eye is already useful and I’m cautiously, cautiously optimistic. Even more so after being seen by the surgeon earlier this week, who pronounced me well on the mend, although I have to take it easy for another week and avoid strenuous exercise for a while.

Handel, the composer whose music I’d been looking at at the start of this story, was less lucky. A professional musician faced with deteriorating sight, he underwent a primitive operation performed, without anaesthetic, with a thorn. It didn’t work. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

On a lighter note, one discovery I made laid down listening to the radio was the Danish String Quartet: