Thursday, November 5, 2009

Time for Surgery

I have been doing vision therapy for about 14 months with Dr. Carl Gruning. When we first met he said that I would probably need surgery, but thought some therapy might give me a better sense how to use and direct my eyes.

About 3 months ago I began to get double vision. First it started with television at night. One evening, there was another television in my dark bedroom. While I was a bit creeped out by this, I knew from all the therapy I had been doing that this meant that BOTH my eyes were working simutaneously. It gave me hope that I would be able to learn how to fuse the images together into a spectacular 3D world! After the TV, other things began to double up; people's heads, pictures on walls.

I brought this information to my next vision therapy evaluation. Dr. Gruning said, "If you are ready Heather and you feel you want to do this, I think it is time to see the surgeon..." I was a bit disappointed. I guess wanted him to say something more like, "Heather, you are now healed!" But throughout the 14 months of vision therapy, I always knew that surgery might be a road I would have to consider given the extent of my misalignment.

I had the surgeon's phone number on a tattered business card in my wallet, carried around with me for a year and a half since Dr. Gruning initially gave it to me. Over the months I took it out a couple of times to look at it, Google the surgeon's name or whatever, but I always ended up tucking it back in my wallet.

After my visit with Dr. Gruning I put off seeing the surgeon for a few weeks and the weeks turned into months. I wondered what I was supposed to do next. I thought of all the options; I could just return to my one eyed seeing (intermittent suppression), and stop doing the exercises, stop wearing my prism glasses and say good-bye to the magical 3D world I visited while wearing my prism glasses. Or I could go to this doctor and see if I was a candidate for surgery. I didn't know what I was going to do. I started to understand that more vision therapy would have probably meant more double vision, which was not a great option.

I decided to go and hear what a surgeon might say. I had reached the point where I felt completely ready to hear any answer. If the doctor said, "I am sorry, there is nothing I can do for you..." I can sincerely say, I would be fine with that and was prepared that this might be the case, as my first two surgeries left me with extensive scar tissue. Perhaps there is too much damage, or I am too old.

Two weeks ago I went into Manhattan and met with the eye surgeon. After a very long wait surrounded by cross eyed children throwing saltines in my hair, and an evaluation by one of the surgeon's associates, I finally met with the man who's number I had carried around for so long. I walked into his office and the first thing he said was, "I got two years on you..."
"I'm sorry, what?"
"I am two years older than you..." he said.
This gave me a laugh and I liked the fact that he was young. After a few questions, he looked at my eyes and with a look of kindness he said,
"Heather, you don't need to be walking around with this, I can fix your eyes."
A heavy feeling was lifted from me when I heard these words and tears came rolling down my face. As our visit went on and we discussed my condition, the risks, the benefits, and what to expect. I realized that not only was this an amazing surgeon, but also a pretty cool guy. He told me about doing pro bono work on adult strabismus patients in the Dominican Republic and told me that he loved what he did for a living.

I don't really know how to explain this, but as we spoke I felt as if I knew him already. I was instantly comfortable in his presence. It was as if he was waiting for me to walk into his office that day. It was a very weird feeling, but also comforting, certainly not a feeling I ever had with any of the other eye surgeons I have met.

I asked him,"If one of the top surgeons, Dr. Philip Knapp couldn't fix my eyes, what makes you think you can?"
"Heather, I have one thing that Dr. Knapp didn't have..."
"Really, what is that?"
He went on to explain that almost everything was different with the procedure-from the anesthesia to the actual surgery, it would be very different from what I experienced as a child. When I questioned him further about the technology aspect, he said that a few hours after my surgery when I woke up there would be strings left hanging out of my eyes and he would pull the strings and continue to align my eyes after I was awake! Gross as it sounded, I was amazed that they could do this.

I booked my surgery for the 18th of this month at a prominent hospital in NYC. I have not slept very well for days. First I was excited, then the fear began to sink in. "Your face will be completely different..." I remember the surgeon saying and now it echos in my head as I toss in bed. I am changing not only the way I look, but also I will have to learn to use my eyes all over again.

I called Dr. Gruning to thank him for referring me to this surgeon and told him that I am booked for surgery. I heard in his voice that he was excited for me. He knows how long this road has been. Before we ended our conversation he said that I would start up vision therapy again after I healed.

Today while walking in the woods, my brother Peter spontaneously picked up a pile of leaves held them to his nose he said, "Everything is different now, but hundreds of years ago people still smelled this," while taking a big sniff of the dried leaves falling from his hands. It made us all laugh. It must run in my family, this thinking back to other times. I think about my Strabismus in this way sometimes. Would I have been an outcast hundreds of years ago because of it? Probably.

I remember seeing a movie called Precious Bane where the woman had a hare lip and was outcast from her small village in England. It starred the brilliant actress JanetMcTeer, who I also saw in Ibsen's Doll's House at the Belasco Theater many years ago. You can see a clip from the movie here. I highly recommend it! Why am I thinking of this movie? Thoughts are careening around my head these days. Prue, the character in the film was outcast because it was thought that she was cursed by the devil. Would my strabismus have brought me the same fate in 18th century England? Perhaps I would have been stoned to death for being a cross-eyed witch.

Here I am, 43 years old having lived long enough to go through one era of medicine and now about to experience a new advanced, miraculous version. It is quite amazing. I would guess it would be like someone living with a prosthetic limb and then getting older and suddenly getting to experience a new advanced limb. Thoughts like these are running through my head, all colliding and advancing. What does it mean to change the face you have known for so long? I will soon find out. What my parents wanted so dearly for me as a child, I soon may be able to capture...straight eyes.

Last night, I dreamt that I was slowly falling asleep after being injected by the anesthesia and a fell deeper and deeper and deeper until I was gone. Poof. The night before I dreamt I awoke in the middle of the surgery while the surgeon was cutting and tugging at my eye muscles. I am very stressed out, but also peaceful, knowing, absolutely knowing that this is the right path.


  1. Good luck with your surgery! Having a good relationship and ability to communicate with your surgeon is very important!

    Keep us posted!

  2. Best of luck with your surgery. I am so happy that you are comforted by this Surgeon and that you are doing what you have always wanted to do. Keep us updated.

  3. Hi Heather! Thank you for sharing your journey with us. I just found your blog via Susan Barry's blog.

    I burst into tears while watching your video. I understand.

    I just went for surgery myself 19 days ago, with Adjustable Sutures. Sounds scary - but it just only feels weird! My husband took photos! And I brought a hand mirror with me, too. :)

    I'm also blogging about my recovery, drop by sometime!

  4. Heather,

    My thoughts are with you in this very frightening time. You know it is OK to be afraid and that you will come out of the surgery with some dreams fulfilled. Best of luck. And, again, thanks for your incredibly beautiful writing.


  5. Sounds like your vision therapy is working the way it's supposed to -- good luck tomorrow!!

  6. I also wonder what it would have been like years ago before these surgeries existed or if I lived in the Amazon or somewhere isolated away from modern medicine. How could we survive in the forest or jungle if we have no depth perception? We couldn't hunt or gather because we might not see our dinner well enough to catch it. I asked my ophthalmologist about this and he said that perhaps people in the past took better care of their "handicapped" family members who were unable to fully function and that's how they survived.


Thank you for your comment. I enjoy reading your feedback.