Do people go through life on a predetermined path, like a straight line?
I often wondered that during the summer of my junior year of high school. I lived a straight line, it seemed like, and it was routine to me. I'd do the things normal people would at my age: hang out at the mall with friends, play video games, watch movies, that sort of thing. It wasn't hard to admit to myself that things were pretty boring, but that was my life.
I had nothing to complain about.
I grew up under the eyes of two hawks, my parents, who always made me wear glasses and protective lenses wherever I went. They always told me it was to protect my right eye, the "good eye", since I was blind in my left.
I was on a trip to the mall with my dad when I finally understood what he meant by protecting my good eye. We went for a normal check up with the optometrist to update my prescription lenses and everything was fine until we left for the food court.
I looked around to see if my new lenses worked better than the old ones. I always made it a point to check after we stepped out of the office.
Something was wrong, though.
"Hey, dad?" I asked.
"What is it, Roland?"
"Do lines look straight to you?"
"What do you mean?"
I looked to the floor and saw the grout of the tile. It was wavy. I stared long and hard for a minute, then looked to the nearest pillar. The edges were the exact same.
"Look over there," I pointed to the pillar I focused on. "Do the edges look straight to you?"
"Of course they do. Why?"
I frowned and said, "They don't look straight to me."
"I don't get it. They don't look straight?"
"Not to me," I answered, then turned to him. "I didn't notice it until now."
"How are they not straight? I still don't get it."
"They're all wavy, I guess. It's not just that, but everything looks that way to me," I said. "Do you think it's because of my new prescription?"
"I don't know." He crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow. "You've never had this problem with your other glasses, right?"
"Never," I admitted. "It's actually freaking me out a little bit."
"I'm sure it's because this one is higher. You just have to get used to it like all the others."
"I don't think it's that. Maybe something's really wrong, dad," I said. I took my glasses off and stared at the pillar again. "Even without them on, nothing is straight."
"Do you want to go back?" He asked.
"I'm not sure. Do you really think I just need to get used to these?" I put my glasses back on. Everything was the same- still wavy.
"Why don't we wait a couple days. If things don't get better, we'll come back as soon as possible."
It took only three days for my dad to schedule another appointment. I heard him scold the person on the phone and say the optometrist who saw me should have taken a closer look at my eye.
The waves I saw grew in size as each day passed. I had no idea what was going on and it scared me.
We saw a new optometrist, Dr. Howard, the next time we went to the mall. Unlike the previous one, who didn't seem to care at all, he took the extra time to assess the situation. My heart sank when I did worse on the eye exam. It was only three days later and my new glasses were useless to me.
What was going on?
"Is there something wrong, doc?" I asked while Dr. Howard shined a miniature flashlight into my eye.
He didn't reply and went to retrieve a bottle of dilation fluid from his desk.
"Do you mind? I want to take a closer look." He waved the bottle from side to side with a small smirk on his face.
"I don't have much of a choice, right?" I said.
The drops were only put in my right eye and Dr. Howard left the room while it dilated. I looked around the room. The light from the eye exam box filled the room with a light haze and the line I read a few minutes before blurred into blobs of black ink.
He came back with a small pouch in his hands. He unzipped it and pulled out several circular rings. He swiveled a piece of equipment towards me.
"Place your chin here for me, buddy," he said and tapped the chin rest.
There was another light that shined in front of me, much brighter than the flashlight he used.
He gave commands while he used his middle finger to hold my eyelid open so he could see clearly through the magnifier.
It was hard to keep my eye open, even with Dr. Howard holding my eyelid in place. It felt as if a hole was being burned into my eye. I rubbed my eye when he told me I could lean back in my chair.
"If I were still teaching at San Diego University, I would have presented you to my class," he mused and let out a small chuckle.
"Your eye is unlike any other I've ever seen. It's fascinating," he said while he scribbled on some paperwork.
"That's not comforting," I said. He chuckled again and gave his chin a scratch.
We went back to the lobby where my parents waited. I knew they were in the middle of an argument when my mom told my dad, "I told you! You should have listened to me!"
When Dr. Howard and I approached, they both came to their feet. The fresh scribbled paperwork was handed over to my dad.
"Alright, so here's a referral to a retina specialist in the area. Her name is Danielle Hutchins and she's one of the best ophthalmologists in the state of California," he said and stuffed his pouch of magnifiers into a pocket on the inside of his coat.
"What did you find out, doctor?" My mom asked.
"His earlier records show that he has a coloboma in his right eye. What that means is the lower half of his retina is very weak," he explained. "There also seems to be something happening with the macula of his eye. What it is, I can't say for sure. That's why I referred you to Dr. Hutchins. She'll be able to give you more information regarding his symptoms and give you a clear diagnosis. I can't give you a clear evaluation without the proper equipment, which I don't have in this facility."
"There's nothing that you can do for him? Will a stronger prescription help him at all?" My dad asked.
I felt nauseous.
"At this point, unfortunately, there's nothing I can prescribe that will increase his vision," Dr. Howard rambled on. "With the current state his eye is in, a new prescription will only raise his vision by a minuscule amount. He wouldn't be able to tell the difference."
"Will he need surgery?" My mom choked out.
"It's too early to tell. I strongly suggest you call Dr. Hutchins and schedule an appointment as soon as possible. She's a great ophthalmologist and is known all over the west coast. He'll be in good hands."
We thanked Dr. Howard and made our way home. I didn't say a word and stared out of the car window while I waited for the world to come back into focus.
My dad called Dr. Hutchins as soon as we got home, but the only appointment she had available was three weeks away. There was nothing that could be done, so my dad scheduled it.
As the weeks passed, my vision continued to deteriorate. Lines became zigzags, printed words became splotches of ink, pictures became blobs of fused colors and everything on TV looked like shapes that performed awkward dance routines.
I broke my cell phone out of anger. I couldn't send any of my friends messages or recognize where they were on my contacts list. I threw it against the wall of my room and it shattered into a dozen pieces.
My parents grew concerned over my behavior, so my dad bought me a notebook and a box full of markers. He told me to write down my thoughts and said writing was a good form of therapy. I agreed to it but never wrote anything down until I saw Dr. Hutchins for the first time.
I woke up early that morning and brought the notebook, markers and my dog, Owen, with me to the metal bench in the front yard. A breeze wandered through the valley which made the thin branches of the tree in our yard sway.
I wore sunglasses during the third week. It felt as if my right eye were permanently dilated.
"Did you see that, boy?" I called out when the leaves shifted positions. The light that poured through the cracks of the leaves looked as if the sky took thousands of pictures of me and Owen. He cocked his head to look up at me. His slicked-back ears always perked up whenever I spoke to him.
I tried to focus on the individual colors. The leaves on the branches meshed together as if a painter mixed colors on their palette.
I started to feel anxious. Was this what my dad meant when he mentioned writing? I took my notebook into my hands and opened it. I opened the cap of the marker with my teeth and stared at the tree as I wrote.
Scribble, scribble, scribble.
I wrote only one sentence:
"It's a beautiful day and I can't see."
Owen whined and nudged his nose against my arm. I closed the sketchbook and put the cap on the marker before I headed inside with Owen right behind me.
The waiting room at the Retina Institute was bright. The walls were ivory and the carpet was a dark navy. I was nervous and it showed since my hands shook when I went to sign in with my parents. We sat on the couch and watched the TV on the wall while we waited for my name to be called.
I was worried something serious was wrong with my eye, but was eager to find out what it was. What I felt was a double edged sword, so to speak. No matter what kind of diagnosis it was, at least it would be explained.
If by some miracle, maybe whatever was wrong could be fixed.
A young woman came to the waiting room and called out, "Mister Stark?"
My parents got up with me, but the woman said they didn't need to come for the eye exam and dilation part of the appointment.
"It's nice to meet you, Mister Stark. I'm Karen," she said and extended her hand to me. I shook it. "I'll be doing your initial exams and taking photos of your eye today."
"Thanks," I said. "I'm Roland."
She led me down the hallway to the first door on the right. The fluorescent lighting, the cold temperature and white walls reminded me of a hospital room. I wanted to comment on it, but Karen started her routine. It sounded like she read from a script while she prepared the eye exam.
"Do you take any medication?"
"None that I know of."
"Are you experiencing any pain in either eye?"
"Not at all."
She handed me something that looked like a masquerade mask. One side was solid while the opposite had an eyehole. Right above the eyehole was a circular piece that had five rounds of pinholes. I held it up to my face with the eyehole over my right eye.
She flicked a switch in the back of the room and the lights turned off as the eye exam box lit up.
"Can you see that?"
"E," I said.
She pressed another button to switch to the second line. There were two more letters smaller in size.
"S, L," I read. I gripped the arm rest as she switched to the next line.
"You're doing great, Roland."
That was great?
"How about this one?" Karen continued.
The next line was harder to see and it bothered me. I was able to see the same line without a hitch only a few weeks ago, so why did I have trouble with it?
"Uh ... "
I squinted. A moment later, Karen came over and moved the pinholes down in place of the single eyehole. I saw an immediate difference.
"O, P, L, B!" I blurted.
"Good! How about this line?"
Click. The four letters were even smaller.
I struggled for a minute then removed the mask from my face.
"I can't read it," I said and slouched in my seat.
She reversed the mask and shined a light into my left eye.
"Can you see the light?"
"Sort of." It wasn't bright at all, but I saw it.
Karen put the mask away and went to the corner closest to the door.
She typed the results into the computer and went to the sink on the opposite side of the room. She grabbed two tissues and slipped on a pair of latex gloves.
"Lean your head back and look up for me, sweetie."
"Dilating my eyes?" I asked.
"Checking the pressure, too. The first few drops might sting a little."
She dabbed the excess from my eyes after three sets of drops were put in. One was for pressure, two for dilation. After a minute or two, my eyes felt heavy.
Karen told me to look straight ahead and keep my eyes open while she tapped an instrument against each of my irises three times. It beeped whenever it got a clear reading.
"Thirty in the right, thirty two in the left," she muttered to herself and typed the numbers into the computer.
"Is that bad?" I asked.
The grooves in the walls disappeared and the posters of the inner eye diagrams fused with it.
"Dr. Hutchins will let you know what's going on," she replied and went to the door. "I'll come get you when we're ready to take pictures."
Less than five minutes later, I was in a chair set in front of equipment I had never seen before. Similar to my visit with Dr. Howard, I had to rest my chin on that uncomfortable piece of plastic while I stared into a camera. At first I thought it was a webcam, but the camera I looked into took photos of the inner eye. It fascinated me.
I was told to stare at the blue light that was in the center. It was meant to keep my eye in one spot while the photo was taken. It was easier said than done, of course. I was often distracted by the flicker of a red bar across the diameter of the lens that moved from top to bottom.
It took three attempts to get a decent picture.
Afterward, my parents were invited to another room with me. It was slightly larger than the room where I had the eye exam and was adjacent to the photo room. I grew anxious.
In that room, I would find answers.
Good or bad didn't matter, but at least there would be answers.
I heard the heels of Dr. Hutchins' shoes click against the linoleum floors of the hallway as she approached the room. Unlike most doctors, who mostly barged in to get the appointment over with, she knocked first and was gentle with the door handle. I lowered my head when she entered.
"Well, hello there! It's nice to meet you, Roland!" She said as she came in.
Dr. Hutchins was cheery. Maybe too cheery considering the circumstances. She extended her hand to me and I shook it.
"You too," I replied.
She shook hands with my parents as well. They had to scoot their seats around so Dr. Hutchins could take a look at my photos on the computer behind them.
They were monochrome and looked very much like sonograms.
It fascinated me to see the innards of my eye. The circumference was outlined in white while the rest of the photo was black. I heard her scroll with the wheel of her mouse which caused the picture to advance like a flip-book animation. It looked like a blob that moved in slow motion.
Upon closer inspection, I saw the bottom outline of my eye nearly double in size. Was that the problem?
"Okay, I see," Dr. Hutchins muttered after the last scroll of her mouse wheel. "Coloboma ... "
"Yes," my dad said. "Though, we knew that from his previous doctor in the Bay Area. It's genetic."
"So you understand his retina is weak," Dr. Hutchins swiveled in her seat to face my dad.
She jotted on a form she brought in with her then skated with her chair to me. I was able to recognize a few of her features when she was up close. She had pale skin, a few wrinkles along her cheek bones and dark hair that framed her face.
"May I take a look at your left eye?" She asked and swiveled the same equipment towards me that Dr. Howard used. I later learned that it was called a slip-light.
"Why my left? Isn't the problem with my right?" I heard her chuckle at my blunt response.
"It'll only be for a minute," she replied, then tapped the chin rest like everyone else had. "I'll explain after I take a look, okay?"
I hesitated, but my mom pushed my shoulder.
I saw the light in my left eye, but not very well. Dr. Hutchins didn't ask me to shift my eye around. She left the room to retrieve another piece of equipment after a few minutes.
Sonograms of both my eyes were the next part of the appointment. The lubricant on the end of the device felt strange as it slid over my eyelids. While I wiped the fluid away, I heard her jot more notes, then a barrage of tacks as she typed on her keyboard.
"So, doctor," my mom started. She had been silent for the majority of the appointment. "Did you find out what's causing the problem? Does he need surgery?"
"Before we get to that, I want to explain what's happening," Dr. Hutchins said. "There are a lot of things going on in there that weren't explained on previous reports."
She explained that in cases like mine where there is only one functional eye, the working one has a tendency to degrade just like the other. The left eye couldn't compensate for the vision loss in my right eye, so it was like follow the leader. My right eye wanted to be like the left.
There were further complications in my eye that contributed to the sudden loss of vision, too. Scar tissue had built up in the back of my eye near the retina, which caused blood vessels to leak. Since it happened so rapidly, the retina was shifted out of place. If not treated properly or in a timely manner, there was a good chance the retina could detach.
That was the reason why the outline of my eye in the photograph, which is called a CT scan, started to expand.
"Will I go blind?" I choked out in between deep breaths. My head started to feel light. I heard my mom shift in her chair and sniff.
"You don't have to worry about that," Dr. Hutchins placed her hand over mine. "I'll make sure that doesn't happen."
"What are our options? Can anything be done?" My dad asked.
"I'd like to have a colleague of mine take a look at him also. That way we can have a definitive answer for you," she told my dad.
"Even with a second opinion, what can be done?"
"Well, we won't know for sure because this is an ongoing prognosis," Dr. Hutchins explained. "In cases like Roland's, there is a chance his retina will detach. Depending on how fast it progresses from now, we can try to clear up the fluids with injections. The other option, if needed, is surgery."
I shuddered at the thought.
"If he does need surgery," my mom asked. There was that stupid word again. Surgery. "Are you going to do it?"
"Yes, of course!"
All that talk about surgery and no one was sure if I actually needed it. My body numbed.
It was all I could think about.
"I want to have one more test done before we finalize any decisions. Roland, are you okay with that?" Dr. Hutchins asked me.
"That's fine. I don't mind," I said.
I started to feel like a human guinea pig.
I was brought to the photo room and Dr. Hutchins had me sign a waiver as standard protocol for the procedure, which was a CT scan on steroids. I didn't hear all the details about what she was about to do since the image of myself on an operation table flashed in my mind.
I wanted to vomit.
Karen was there when I arrived. I followed the same instructions as the CT scan. Dr. Hutchins went to the corner where the medical supplies were while Karen adjusted the settings of the camera.
The camera was different during the test. Instead of a red bar, a white screen flickered. The blue light was still there, but it was hard to focus on. It came in and out of existence while the white screen flashed. I was told to focus on the blue light as best I could, but I knew that we had to go through the process at least twice.
"You're going to feel a light pinch," Dr. Hutchins said when she returned from the medical cabinet. She took my arm and placed it on the arm rest attached to the table the camera sat on. "Relax."
As Karen made the final adjustments to the camera, I realized what Dr. Hutchins retrieved from the medical cabinet.
Before I had a chance to protest, I felt a sharp poke against my arm.
"It's just the dye, Roland. Nothing to worry about," she said as my entire body twitched. "It's going to help me see everything more clearly in your eye."
"I hate getting shots," I remarked as Dr. Hutchins bandaged me up. I felt nauseous seconds later.
"You're a brave one," she told me. "This won't take long. We'll have more answers for you when this is done. I promise."
The queasiness in the pit of my stomach grew as I leaned forward to stare into the camera. Karen told me to sit back a few times because my eye darted around. The second time I backed off from the camera, I took a few deep breaths.
"Do you need the garbage can?" Karen asked. I heard a plastic bag ruffle.
"Why would I need that? I'm fine."
"The dye that was injected can make people feel sick," she said. "You look like you could spew any second now."
I tried to laugh and almost gagged. After another deep breath, I waved Karen on. I wanted to get the test over with as soon as possible.
The fourth time was the charm. I had to stay in the same position for a minute straight while the photographs were taken. The white light that flickered was meant for the camera to pick up the dye as it filled my eye. It would get brighter in the picture if it reached an enlarged blood vessel, or if one had burst.
The nausea wore off when I returned to Dr. Hutchins and my parents. I plopped myself back into the patients seat and waited for more answers to come.
When she brought up the scans, the parts of my eye that were dark in the CT scans were grey because of the dye. As she progressed through the pictures, thorn-like lines spread out in every direction like fireworks. The lower half of my eye glowed even brighter than the rest.
Dr. Hutchins explained to my parents what the dye was for. The parts that glowed in the scans were ruptures in blood vessels.
"Seeing as how fast it's progressing," she went on, keeping her index finger on the computer screen and traced the bright spots of the scan. "Surgery will be the best option for Roland. Let me get some paperwork for you and we can set a date."
Right before she left, Dr. Hutchins explained that I might not be able to drive anymore if I did; possibly never again.
I thought of my friends.
Living in the desert meant that you had to drive in order to get around unless you used public transportation, which I wasn't a fan of.
A million other thoughts came to mind: What if I did go blind? What if the surgery wouldn't help? I won't be able to read, write, play music or even go on the computer.
I would be lost in a world that I hadn't found my place in, yet.
Why was it happening to me?
Both my mom and dad came to me and rubbed my shoulders.
"It's going to be okay, sweetheart. We're going to take care of you."
"We're here for you, son. We'll do whatever it takes to help you."
It felt like I was in a nightmare. I wanted to wake up and find out it was all just a morbid dream.
But it wasn't.
In that cold room, it was the first time I ever cried for myself.