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:




11 thoughts on “Quite a Christmas

  1. Wow! Glad to hear you’re getting your sight back. I must say, your description of events has not allayed my fears. I developed a floater in my vision earlier this year, and naturally I feared the worst. So far, it’s just an annoyance I can live with and rarely think about now. I pray it stays that way. I don’t know how I’d fare with the repeated lying down bit; I’m always up and down doing stuff.
    Take care! I bet your spouse is glad you’re past the worst of it.🎉Happy New Year, Dominic!

    1. Thanks for that. And a Happy New Year to you, too. As for eye deterioration, don’t procrastinate if you’re worried. The quicker you act, the less serious the treatment, on the whole. It’s just what I’ve heard, but floaters on their own, as I understand it, aren’t usually considered worth the risk of surgery to get rid of. According to the leaflets I’ve read, though, they can be precursors to tears, etc., which do need treating promptly,so they tell you to report an increase in floaters.

      1. Oh, don’t worry, I was straight to the eye-doc when it first appeared. They did all sorts of tests and told me they could see nothing serious. I have to live with the floater though. I do keep on top of it and will do whatever is necessary if there are any changes.

        How are things for you now (three days later)?


      2. I only had to lay on my side for a week. I don’t have to do it at all now and the “gas bubble” has shrunk to a fraction of its former size. I’m told I can even start running once it has dissolved completely – which shouldn’t be long now. However, I’m inclined to leave it a couple of weeks longer than that.

  2. I wish you a speedy and full recovery and hope you’ll be playing again soon.
    You’re quite right about the NHS. Of course doctors and hospitals aren’t perfect, nothing is, and we should never be complacent. But at least we don’t generally have to worry about whether they’re pushing the patient into unnecessary operations to boost their takings, and the system tries hard to make sure they’re competent.

  3. Oh, Dominic, I’m glad you seem to be on the mend. Best wishes from Carmen and me for a full recovery.

    Talking of floaters, I’ve had them for ten years but they haven’t got any worse. They can be very annoying, but I’ve partly got used to them.

  4. All I can say is that you were greatly missed at all of our Christmas celebrations. I suppose the only good thing is that there is much more Christmas cake left in the tin than usual. Seriously though, I am glad you are on the mend and that things appear to have gone well. Hope the surgeon is equally pleased with your progress when you return on Monday.

  5. Dom, I’m glad it all went well. Your description is excellent and would reassure me if I was having this procedure. Indeed the NHS is wonderful and to be supported always. Wishing you a very happy, healthy and creative 2016.

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