It’s now been a year since one of those events that every visual artist “” and pretty much everyone else “” fears could happen, happened to me. I went blind, albeit temporarily, in one eye.
In mid-September of last year, I woke up as usual one day and found the vision in my left eye to be blurry. I assumed my eyes were bleary from not enough sleep, so it didn’t seem too odd, except that it stayed that way all day. On Thursday, I awoke to the exact same thing, but shrugged it off as fatigue or such. On Friday, with the eye still blurry, I began to wonder if I should contact my ophthalmologist, but had a number of errands to run and Rosh Hashanah services that evening to attend. After lunch, I noticed a darker circular shape obscuring the vision in the eye on the side toward the nose. As I drove home, it seemed to increase.
When I called the ophthalmologist, I was hesitant to come in “” needing to be 50 miles away in the opposite direction an hour later for the Rosh Hashanah services “” but they finally convinced me to come in. My doctor suspected a retinal detachment, and his exam confirmed it. It was already past 5 pm on a Friday “” of course “” and he called around a bit before finding a retina specialist still working. By the time I drove to see this specialist, it was getting dark and I was driving while only able to use my right eye.
The retina specialist tried a quick fix that he deemed insufficient a few days later, and ordered me to a hospital for surgery. He used a cryogenic probe to sort of weld the retina back in place and induced a large gas bubble to act like a bandage and hold the retina in position while it healed. For the next three weeks I had to keep my head down as much as possible, and could only sleep on my back or right side.
My vision, once the “bandage” bubble went away, was mediocre. Images appeared as maybe 70 percent the size of what the right eye saw, plus they skewed rightward and downward, and were blurry. Parallel lines, such as railroad tracks, appeared wavy. I couldn’t make out words with that eye. Driving was done with the right eye, as were reading and drawing, and I managed to resume drawing within days of surgery.
Amazingly, I didn’t miss a single cartooning deadline. I was ahead by a couple of cartoons at the time of the detachment, then relied on simple drawings with a lot of bits of art stolen from older cartoons of mine. I had to fix my visual-perception errors in Photoshop: mirror-imaging the drawings, skewing and distorting them back to normal, and flipping them back. Early on, I needed an eye patch to filter out the “bad info” from the left eye.
I was able to impress the doctors by depicting, via Photoshop tricks, exactly what I saw with each eye (shown here). I also was able to amuse myself by looking at people while squinting one eye, then the other, and seeing their heads shrink to weird pinhead sizes and then pop back to normal.
The retina doctor assured me things would improve, and a year later they have. Somewhat.
Here, a year later, images in the left eye appear at maybe 85 percent the size of what the right eye sees, and the distortion is less. Images are still rather blurry, but I can read large words on signs or newspaper headlines. Mid-range vision is so-so, most noticeable trying to read the menu at a fast-food restaurant or looking at paintings behind rope barriers at museums. Glasses don’t make much difference. But the brain has learned to compensate and rely on the “good” information from the undamaged right eye as the main source of visual info. I even was able to watch a couple of 3-D movies and get some (but probably not all) of the 3-D effect.
Why did this happen? Well, I did have all the risk factors: being over 50, having had cataract surgery and, most notably, having been severely nearsighted (before having Lasik surgery in 1999), with the lengthened eye anatomy of that putting a strain on the retina from the get-go.
But there was one other factor that I suspect but can’t prove. In preparation for Rosh Hashanah, I tried my hand for the first time at blowing the shofar “” the ritual ram’s horn. Even though it’s notoriously hard to play, a shofar expert gave me a quick lesson, and I was able to make some mediocre sounds from the instrument. That was on a Tuesday. But the next morning, Wednesday, was when the blurriness started.
Blowing the shofar, or a trumpet or tuba or other wind instrument, involves a valsalva maneuver, blowing against resistance. This puts pressure on the sinuses and in the chest cavity. Could such pressure affect the eyes?
I Googled the subject as best as I could. There were a few other people complaining about detached retinas, but responses from retinal experts were unable to confirm a cause-and-effect from blowing the shofar. I asked three of my own doctors, and none would commit to saying there was a connection, although they also couldn’t rule it out.
My days of shofar playing are done. My vision, while not what it was 53 weeks ago, is functional. I’m still drawing, as much as ever.
But I will never let another day of unexplained change in my vision go unexamined. And you shouldn’t either.
Be sure to see the huge archive of my work (organized by topic area) on my web site at http://www.greenberg-art.com