Close your eyes and you won’t be able to read the words on this page or study the granulated quality of the paint on the facing wall. But you will still discern the movement of clouds across the sky behind shut eyelids. You will hear the hum of engines muffled through the layers of many walls. You will suddenly notice the unusual heft of the hotel comforter draped across your body, aching already with pain to come. You will count the beats resounding in your left temple.
You will, for that moment, experience life as I did one summer—a moment that eventually comprised a week, then two, then three. When you open your eyes, they will very beautifully and suddenly reveal the world unchanged but for the slant of light across your desk. Nine months ago, I learned to take neither the stability of my world nor such a simple act for granted.
In the summer of 2010, I traveled to Russia to volunteer at the Kitezh-Orion Children’s Community, a nonprofit orphanage, in the hopes of befriending some children and improving my intermediate Russian. Three weeks after arriving, I lost half of the vision in my left eye. Four days later, I learned my retina had detached. Without immediate surgery, I could permanently lose all vision in that eye. Within 48 hours, I underwent an emergency operation in Moscow.
As a child, I conceived of myopia as a form of blindness in which an impenetrable veil descended around everything outside of a set radius of visible things. Only in the third grade, when my own eyes began to fail, did I realize my mistake. Those with strong eyes probably cannot fathom what it means to be myopic. Myopia does not obscure the world, but gradually softens it. In its milder forms, it eradicates sharp lines, rendering the world a hazy, often more-attractive place. Trees dissolve into Dr. Seuss-like clumps of feathery green; pores and wrinkles simply dissolve. As myopia advances, however, boundaries between objects break down, causing discrete monochrome units like fingers to merge into indistinct blocks of color. The world of the myope finds its artistic expression in Impressionism. Without glasses, the Rouen cathedral bears an uncanny resemblance to a painting by Monet.
Myopia does not obscure the world, but gradually softens it. In its milder forms, it eradicates sharp lines, rendering the world a hazy, often more-attractive place.
The eye functions like a camera: The front part of the eye, equivalent to the aperture or lens, captures light and refracts it onto the retina (our optic film), which then sends neural impulses to the brain, which “develops” the image. The retina is vital to this process: if it detaches, the brain can no longer receive signals from the affected area, and part of the image disappears into darkness. Most myopes have unusually long eyeballs that impede the eye’s normal ability to bend and focus light onto the retina. The result is blurry, unfocused vision.
The myope’s elongated eyeballs also stretch the retina to a literal breaking point, creating tiny tears and holes until the retina comes to resemble a butterfly net. The pattern created by these holes gives the disorder its elegant name, lattice degeneration—a name that brings to mind garden parties and climbing roses. The atypical stretching combined with lattice degeneration can eventually cause part of the retina to separate from the supporting tissue, creating a blind spot, and, if wholly detached, total blindness.
Both of my retinas were prettily and copiously punctured before I set off for Russia. Since lattice degeneration can exist for years without harming the eye, my ophthalmologist had not considered it necessary to inform me that I suffered from it, nor even tell me such a condition existed—even though I had turned to him in the weeks preceding my trip with specific concerns about the black specks that hovered perpetually and maddeningly in the center of my vision (floaters) and the sudden bursts of light that illumed my left eye behind closed lids (flashes). He did not tell me that both these phenomena are warning signs of retinal detachment, nor that I was doubly at risk because of my severe lattice degeneration.
Although I had felt a strange sensation—in retrospect, I would say it felt like something tearing, but in reality it was more like the lightest tug in my left eye—while standing in a Moscow metro station, I remained unconcerned when a dark spot materialized at the inner corner of my left eye. I assumed a speck of Moscow had lodged itself beneath my contact lens over the course of a day. And when it turned out I’d boarded the wrong bus from Moscow to Orion, and Sergei needed to drive out of his way to pick me up, I was decidedly more preoccupied with my recent humiliation than with my health.
How was Moscow? Sergei asked in Russian as we approached Orion. Hot. I went to a monastery. Sergei laughed at this, exposing his white teeth. Sergei was recently divorced; his ex-wife lived with her new husband in a cabin a few hundred feet from where he now slept alone. I blinked. The black spot was still there. We ascended the long driveway through stinging nettles so tall they towered over me.
Orion is a tiny village comprised of Russian couples who have volunteered to devote their lives to orphans. Each Orion couple adopts and raises at least two orphaned children as their own, in addition to teaching classes during the school year and leading summer activities over vacation. The Orion men had built all of the community’s wooden structures—the cabins, the dining room, the central schoolhouse, the bathhouse, the goat shed, and the doghouse—over the course of a few summers.
I blinked. The black spot was still there. We ascended the long driveway through stinging nettles so tall they towered over me.
After we ate dinner, I returned to my small hexagonal room in the volunteer house. I removed my contact lenses, but the black spot remained. A cascade of eye drops would not wash it away. Over the weekend, the darkness expanded to encompass half my sphere of vision. I chose objects to focus on—the purple patterned curtains in my room, a child on a tricycle, a yellow flower—then covered my right eye and watched as half the image disappeared. Internet access was limited, but preliminary Google searches disclosed the possibility of a brain tumor. I panicked. Monday was the fourth of July. My parents could not reach our ophthalmologist. Reserved by nature, I had previously hesitated to approach the Orion adults—constantly harried by children’s demands and community chores—but finally turned to Sergei for help. Ah, he said, Marianna will come. She has been meaning to visit.
Marianna was a former volunteer who was fluent in English and just happened to be in the early stages of her career as an ophthalmologist at a nearby clinic. She arrived that evening. She insisted no room would be dark enough for an eye inspection until after sunset—an event that did not occur until about 10:30 p.m. At midnight, she performed the examination.
The inspection revealed an advanced detached retina, which had resulted in the loss of my central vision. This is an emergency, she said. You will need surgery immediately. She called my parents, Moscow eye clinics, and my insurance company. I cried. Emma, Emma, don’t cry. She instructed me to lie flat and completely still with my head tilted to one side. This will prevent the retina from detaching further. It’s already quite advanced. How many days did you say have passed? Four days. You should get some rest. She drove me into Moscow at 5:00 a.m. and escorted me to various clinics for blood work and an official diagnosis. Keep your head tilted toward the right. I walked with my aching head pushed against my right shoulder. I had never had surgery before. Has the blind spot expanded? I didn’t think so. It was hard to be sure. She scheduled my surgery with Dr. Stolyarenko1. Emma, you are lucky it is your eye and not your liver or your kidney. Russian ophthalmology is very advanced. He would operate the following day.
Marianna took me back to her tiny apartment, where she lent me pajamas and her own bed for the night. She had given up on telling me not to cry. The next afternoon, she drove me back to the clinic, where I found Andrei, a Muscovite whom I had befriended in Kitezh, in the waiting room. He hugged me.
Enter the preparation room. Eye drops; two shots in my arm; one under my eye; a friendly nurse complimenting my Russian. Walk to the operating room. Another shot. My other eye is covered. The left one, now numb, is forced open with a contraption resembling the torture device in A Clockwork Orange. I am awake during the hour-long surgery. Blurry images: Scissors, syringes, needle and thread. Pain. When I sit up, the doctor tells me to come in again tomorrow. I think he means that another surgery will be necessary, and I cry. He pats my shoulder.
“Vsyo. That’s all.”
Headache. Eye patch. Andrei takes me home. I sleep. His girlfriend Sasha wakes me to peel off the layers of gauze and administer ointment. More sleep. At 9:00 a.m. we return to the doctor for a bright invasion of fluorescent light into my oozing eye. The surgery was successful, but I can’t fly for two weeks or the gas bubble now floating in my left eye and obscuring my vision will expand and explode.
My mother manages to obtain an emergency visa. She will arrive tomorrow. The first day passes in fits of sleep.
When I awake, I still have a headache, but my mother is there. We find a hotel on the edge of Red Square with so many pillows I can almost sleep well even though I must remain upright with my head tilted to the right. At night, my eye oozes and aches. I take hot baths and painkillers. I can’t read. I write emails with my eyes closed. I listen to Leonard Lopate discuss American art, American food, and American books on National Public Radio online. My mother administers four different eye drops four times a day and reads aloud from Can You Forgive Her?, a Victorian novel by Anthony Trollope. The 19th-century English transports me from our cold and claustrophobic hotel room in Cyrillic-shrouded Russia to Britain’s relatively familiar countryside. I consider the many ways to leave Russia without entering an airplane: Train to Berlin, to Paris; ship to New York; train to Rome, where my brother is living; train to London, where they speak English and understand vegetarians.
I avoid looking in the mirror at my left eye, which is perpetually half-closed, puffed to twice its normal size and tinged blue, or too closely at the slit through which I can see the white of the eye, now red, swollen, and dotted with brown stitches. I fear that the surgery won’t have saved my vision. I imagine life as a blind person. I’ve lost 15 pounds in the nine days since the diagnosis.
I begin to feel fortunate that I was in Russia, and not at home in New York, when this happened. Russians do not depend on others—on insurance, on hospitals, on salaried nurses, and particularly not on the government—for help; they depend on each other.
Still, I am improving. Each day, I can exist outside of bed for a little longer. My mother cannot stay forever. Worse, her mother, my 92-year-old grandmother, has just been hospitalized after falling out of bed in the night. So when Andrei, who has called nearly every day, offers me his spare bedroom for the next week, I accept. A day later, my mother leaves, reluctant and worried, in a taxi for the airport. I take a separate one to Andrei’s.
I am embarrassed even to think it, but Andrei and Sasha are better nurses than my mother. They do not shrink from my eye’s grotesqueness and, though careful, they are not overly gentle, so that I realize my eye is resilient and doesn’t need to be coddled. They push me to go for walks, to read, to sleep less, and to eat more. The escort me to the hospital, where the doctors affectionately call me the poor little American, bednaya Amerikanka, and never keep me waiting long. On the subway to and from the clinic, men and women alike offer me their seats.
I begin to feel fortunate that I was in Russia, and not at home in New York, when this happened. Russians do not depend on others—on insurance, on hospitals, on salaried nurses, and particularly not on the government—for help; they depend on each other. I decide they still understand the meaning of community either because of or in spite of years of imposed collective living, but I cannot decide which.
When I return to New York—a nerve-wracking plane ride on which I envision my eye bursting and coating the seatback in front of me with small gelatinous pieces—my grandmother’s declining health pushes my own into the background. I am young. I will heal.
Open your naked eyes and the room—the granulated wall, the letters on the screen, your own wind-chafed hands—will reemerge in blurred blocks of color. The surgery altered the shape of your left eyeball, drastically increasing your eye’s myopia. Since then, you’ve lived in constant fear of breaking your glasses, of losing your contacts, of having no other way to correct your vision. You fear blindness.
After weeks in the ICU, my grandmother died that fall. I think about her often.
Stolyarenko’s surgery was largely successful; however, a small corner of my retina persistently detached. I spent that fall making weekly trips to a retinal specialist in Boston, who used a painful laser to cordon off the problem area with scar tissue.
Though I’ve since recovered most of my vision, the world seen through my left eye now appears slightly darker and more surreal. All lights have halos. I consider myself lucky to see them.