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PUBLISHED: 4:35 PM on Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Never take your sight for granted

Juneau optometrist Forrest Messerschmitt is a pretty easy-going guy.

But he had a very serious look on his face Aug. 2.

He pushed back the bank of optical equipment he'd been using to study my right eye and gave me a grave look.

"You have a detached retina."

Okay. They can fix those, right?

"If you still had some of your vision, I'd be putting you on the next plane to Seattle and you'd be having surgery tonight."

Wow. Maybe they can fix this?

"At this point there's no rush."

Uh-oh.

To make a long story short, a week later the eye experts at Virginia Mason in Seattle spent several hours working on my eye, doing the only surgical option likely to restore any vision - putting a permanent silicon band, or sclera buckle, around my eye to move the retina back into place.

There are a few other details like lasers and the joys of general anesthesia that I'll spare you.

Suffice to say we are blessed that we live in a time when such surgery is even possible, much less accessible.

In our parents' day, I'd have just gone blind.

The good news is that my retina is reattached, and in another five or six weeks we'll know how much of my sight may return.

As I write this, it's already far better than when I went into surgery, although I'd hardly call it seeing - more like the fog is lifting slightly.

The point of this little story is to help you to avoid the experience, or to mitigate it if you do.

Conventional wisdom to the contrary, detached retinas are almost never caused by a blow to the eye or some other violent injury.

Instead, they are usually an extension of the aging process, when the center of the eye shrinks and sometimes sticks to the retina, tearing it away from the back of the eyeball and allowing fluid to fill in behind, increasing the separation.

Once separated, that gossamer thin sheet of living vision sensors, literally the "film" in the camera of our eyes, will begin to deteriorate and die.

Injuries to the eye can lay a future proclivity for a detached retina as can cataract surgery.

Having been struck in my right eye when I was 7, and having cataract surgery in it when I was 45, might have hastened this detachment.

Or it might not.

There are several other procedures available for repairing this particular injury, although in every case it's major surgery with many weeks, or months, of recovery time.

So keep your eyes open. Be conscious of your vision, rather than taking it for granted.

Get a complete vision checkup at least once a year, so your family eye expert has a baseline to compare to, if something does change. This is doubly critical after age 50.

If you notice anything abnormal, such as floaters, areas of less clarity or just an overall decline, see an optical doctor immediately.

If you see a sudden change, consider it a potential emergency. Don't wait for your next appointment.

Don't wait until next week. Don't wait until lunch. Get an appointment, get a professional checkup and maybe save your vision.

I'd originally planned to wait another week to see Dr. Messerschmitt.

My son was in town on vacation, the fishing was good, the derby was coming on the weekend - it just wasn't convenient.

But if I'd waited even just a few more days, instead of finally making the decision to get an exam that day, my prognosis might be much worse.

There is no reverse to blindness.

Wouldn't it be a lifetime tragedy to live in a place as glorious visually, such a banquet for the eyes, as Southeast Alaska - and not be able to see it?

Imagine never seeing another bald eagle, a river brimming with salmon, a sea of fireweed, a humpback breaching against the sky.

So take care of your eyes. I hope I'll be "seeing" you!

Leschper is general manager of the Capital City Weekly and advertising director of the Juneau Empire.

Send him e-mail him at lee.leschper@juneauempire.com.


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