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Functional Friday: The eyes have [had] it

Another post that might not seem at first glance to be something that is DMLL, but I hope you might agree it is.

ID-10032011We don’t have a fix on the demographic of the readership here, but the authors are (unfortunately) all men at various distances from the mid-century mark (and we are looking to diversify, so contact us!!!) who obviously spend too much time in front of computer screens, and  have to deal with the minutia of Japanese bureaucracy. If you think about it, the biggest monkey wrench that could be thrown into the works would be vision problems. Therein lies a tale…

I have had glasses since the summer of my second grade year. My second grade teacher (Mrs. Carmody, bless her heart) after grading math tests, noticed that even though I had all the wrong answers, they were wrong because I copied down the wrong numbers from the blackboard. She said to my mother that I might need glasses and she thought that was crazy until our next door neighbor, a major in the Air Force, was coming over, and I, looking out the window, said ‘Mom, I think the plumber is coming’. My mom said she always felt guilty, because after I got glasses, the first thing I said was ‘wow, I can see the leaves on the tree’.

While most of you are probably aware of this, the average case of near-sightedness comes when the eyeball is flattened out and the focal point of the lens isn’t located correctly. Looking at things at a distance requires relaxing the ciliary muscle. Constant compression of that muscle, done when you want to focus on something closely such as a computer screen, tends to flatten and elongate the eye. This explains why our distant ancestors on the plains of Africa didn’t need glasses: because their eyes generally were focussed on distant points, the eyeballs never deformed.

What I didn’t know was that flattening actually stretches the retina, which is the layer of light-sensitive cells on the back of your eye. And, as we get, oh, say in our 50’s, the retina, much like the rest of our bodies, gets less supple and flexible and will tear. If the clear fluid in the eye, called the vitreous humour, finds its way behind your retina, that layer of cells will peel off like old wallpaper. This video describes it

It was a Thursday afternoon in July, and I saw a number of flashes in my right eye and then it was as if someone had dropped a piece of clear, but dirty, plastic in front of my eye. There was no pain, and it seemed as if something had gotten in my eye. I came home and went to bed, thinking that it might clear up in the morning. I woke up and it was basically the same and, as I had no classes, my wife pushed me to go to the eye doctor. Had it been up to me, had I had classes, I probably would have just soldiered on, which shows you what an idiot I can be.

So, at 11 am, the doctor put some drops in my eye to dilate the pupil, took a look and said ‘you have to go to the hospital’. I said, sure, but I have classes next week, so I could probably find some time in August. He said no, you have to go the hospital now. So, while he called, we picked up my toothbrush and pajamas and my wife drove me over to the Kumamoto University hospital. At 3 in the afternoon, I was lying on an operating table while a doctor was ever so carefully trying to get the retina to reattach to the back of my eye. The operation is done under local anesthetic, bringing to mind Un Chien d’Andalou.

What I had was a detached retina, or in Japanese, 網膜剥離 (Momaku hakuri). One of the risk factors is participation high impact or high-speed sports, and one often hears of boxers suffering from this, as the combination of acceleration/deceleration and getting punched in the eye creates the conditions. If the retina detaches completely, it no longer receive blood and the cells die. If that happens, you are blind in that eye.

I do aikido, and a lot of people asked me if I took a shot to the head, but evidently, old age and poor vision are also causative factors for a lot of cases. I’ll spare you the gory details, but 1) I was in the hospital for a month and 2) thank god for Japanese national health insurance. While I was in the hospital, they also looked at my left eye and said there was tearing in that retina. Fortunately, they could use a laser to stop the tears from getting worse, basically (and sorry for the graphic description) welding the retina to the back of the eye.

While I didn’t lose my vision, not only has my ability to see at a distance been reduced, looking at the computer screen has gotten a lot more tiring. It has been exacerbated not only by the current trend in light on white backgrounds where entry fields are often barely visible but also by having to deal with the numerous design flaws in Japanese webpages (miniscule fonts, bizarre layouts, links stacked on links, hidden javascript pop ups to mention a few) It’s been a year, and, like a friend on another blog notes, it has become like the weather, in that there is nothing I can do about it, so I just have to live with it. However, it is absolutely jaw-dropping to realize how much an almost full recovery still leaves me with a glass half-empty. I’ve lost a good 20 yards off of my distance vision, so when I see students across the way, where before, I could recognize them and tell if they were my students and then rummage around in my memory to get a name or something to say to them, now, I can’t tell until they are close enough for me to talk to, which really kills me, because part of my teaching shtick is to know as many names and faces of students as I can. And working on the computer, not to mention my iPad and iPhone, are something where time has to be rationed.

I’m not in the process of trying to revise the various parameters to make things easier, and I’m sure that will be grist for another Functional Friday or three. But for this one, I will simply suggest that if you are coming up to 50, take the time and get your eyes checked once a year for retinal tearing.

Image courtesy of Idea go /

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