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Sunday, September 25, 2011


September 25, 1991
I’d been in Austin since the beginning of June, working as an outside sales rep.  My territory was southwest Austin--everything south of the Colorado River and west of I-35.  That was the part of town where the Hill Country begins to rise up from the more flat Texas terrain.

“You have diabetic retinopathy,” a retina specialist’s nurse told me on the phone.  “If you don’t get laser treatment right away you could lose all your vision.”

It was what I half expected to hear and what I feared hearing the most.  It knocked the wind out of me.  I stammered out a few questions.  Around me, co-workers buzzed around on what was a typical Wednesday for them.

Air.  I needed air.  The news propelled me from my office to the alley behind the building.  The glaring sun, the tears in my eyes, and what turned out to be a serious problem all conspired to turn my surroundings into a runny watercolor painting.

I needed to be alone with this news.  I needed to get home.  It wasn’t far to my truck and I drove home on autopilot, wondering if I would be able to drive in the months ahead.  Once I was home, I called the retina specialist’s office again and asked the nurse more questions.  She was kind and compassionate.  She spoke in the perfect tone of voice for someone in obvious despair.

“I don’t know what to do,” I told her.  “WHAT AM I GOING TO DO?”

“I can’t answer that for you,” she said gently and I knew she wished she could tell me the right thing to do.

Next, I called my parents in Arkansas, who were waiting to hear what the report was.  By this point, my brave face was history.  Nothing had ever terrified me so much.  My mother wanted to reach through the phone and hug me.  Her little (well, twenty-seven year old) boy was hundreds of miles away and in trouble.

“Maybe you should come back here and we’ll face this together,” she finally said.

It was the thing I needed most.  It was the thing I feared most.  The prospect of losing my independence, possibly my sight, my income, and facing God-only-knew what kind of gruesome eye treatments loomed in front of me like an 18-wheeler out of control on an icy road.

Over the next several days, I packed, sold things, threw things away, tried to do a few final fun things in Austin, and worked my final days at what would end up being my last full-time job until 2004.

“They’re doing some great things with eye stuff down in San Antonio,” my boss told me.  “You should check into that.”  She was trying to be encouraging, trying to help me find a solution without rearranging my whole life.

But I needed my family.  It would mean leaving a city that I absolutely loved—a bigger version of the funky college town where I grew up, but in Texas.  It would mean going from calling on corporate accounts most of the day, talking to dozens of people in person or on the phone.  It would mean giving up the freedom of driving around without anyone looking over my shoulder while I did what I was good at—sales.  It would mean staying with my parents at the edge of a small town and having to rely on them for everything.

I was optimistic.  The laser treatments would fix the problem.  I might lose some vision but I’d figure out a way to survive, maybe even thrive.  It was a good thing I didn’t know exactly how bad things would get before stabilizing.  The eye hemorrhages.  The surgeries to clear the blood out of my eye.  The frustration that crossed over into rage.

My vision was stable for several years, with acuity of barely legally blind.  I started receiving Social Security and Medicare.  My sight was stable for the next several years while I faced other health issues.  Life-threatening situations at times complicated by my reduced vision.  Other times, having been toughened up by the experience, it might have helped me deal with what lay ahead.  By the time those scarier situations came along, I’d already learned how to make things work for myself.  It was just a matter of figuring out a new method of going about things.

My sight worsened in 2003.  It wasn’t supposed to happen, but that’s another story.  It’s been more of a struggle since then.  A contact lens in my right eye and tinted prescription glasses for my left have improved how well I see to a level it hasn’t been in over eight years.

Now I look ahead the next twenty years.  I pay attention to all the news about medical breakthroughs regarding vision, especially the retina.  I’m encouraged by stem cell therapy and the development of a bionic retina.  After all my eyes have been through, I’m not afraid to try something promising that might help.

I don’t know what the world in 2031 will look like—but I suspect I’ll be able to see it even more clearly than I do today.

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