The Luck Of The Iris

I was on the scary side of 65 when I started noticing newsprint a bit blurry, as if my lens was smudged. So I’d clean my glasses, thinking these plastic lenses are nice and light, but scratch too easily. I needed real good light to read the smaller print in newspapers and paperbacks, otherwise the blurriness was just an irritating reminder that something was wrong.

I enlarged the font on my computer, and sat closer to the TV, but finally got over my denial when I noticed that my left eye saw clearly when my right eye was closed, but my right eye saw print a bit blurry when my left eye was closed. I finally decided it was time to get a check-up and some new glasses.

I took a Visual Field Assessment test, where I’d look into this machine while gripping a lever, and told to push the button whenever I saw a spark, like a shooting star. At first they came slowly, but soon I was pushing that button faster and faster, just like playing a video game. The test-giver kept complimenting my reaction time, so when the test was over I thought I had done pretty well, until she told me that I missed reacting to a “linear line” in the middle of my right eye.

Turned out I not only have glaucoma, but I have already lost vision in my right eye. She showed me a photo of what it looks like behind my eyes. The right eye was redder (bloodier) than the left eye, the results of damaged optic nerve fibers, due to internal pressure within, and hardening of the eyeball, which leads to a gradual impairment of sight, often resulting in blindness…in case you were wondering.

The good news — have you ever noticed no matter how bad a situation is, there’s always “good news?” Oh, and you’re always “lucky.” For example, I don’t have the fast-moving glaucoma that occurs from a “sudden blockage, resulting in a rapid pressure build-up, accompanied by blurred vision, colored rings around lights, pain or redness.”

Lucky me, I have the slow moving kind. No hurries, no worries. Chill out, dude. It moves at a casual pace, develops slowly and painlessly, giving me the opportunity to go on enjoying my awesome life…while it gradually destroys my vision without any warning signs! Maybe the first warning sign is denial?

Dr. Kim recommended eye drops to help lower the pressure. I never liked messing with my eyes. Years ago my optometrist told me I was a “bad candidate” for contact lenses, because I kept flinching whenever any object came near my eyes. I always preferred to put up with glasses, nerd look and all.

After taking the drops in both eyes every night for two months, I went back to Dr. Kim to see if the eye drops helped. After a painless procedure called Tonometry , which measures the internal pressure, she smiled sweetly, telling me that I was lucky because the drops have lowered the pressure from 18 to 14.

So I asked Dr. Kim, “How long do I have to take the drops?” But before she could answer, I added, a bit too sarcastically, “The rest of my life!” Making life sound like “as if.”

She knocked the smile off my face when she turned from her paper work, looked me in the eyes and said, firmly, “Yes.”

I suppose the good news is the rest of my life isn’t that fucking long anyhow, what the hell, what’s ten, fifteen years? (Okay, let’s do the math: 10 years is 120 months or 520 weeks or 3,650 days…hmm, maybe that is a longish time?)

What if I live as long as my Grandpa Riebe? He lived to 92, but was blind from glaucoma the last ten or so years. The good news is you’ll live to 92! The bad news is you’ll be blind by the time your 80.

I have a clear memory of Grandpa sitting in his kitchen chair in the old farm house, next to a large wood cook stove, staring straight ahead, as if he was seeing something in the room that no one else could see.

I like telling people that my Grandpa was alive when President Lincoln was alive. In fact, Grandpa Wilhelm Riebe was born February 28, 1865 — 45 days before Honest Abe was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.

Since glaucoma is hereditary, I figured if I knew when Grandpa Riebe went blind I’d get an idea how long I had. I was already over the hill and picking up speed, so I could not help but wonder.

My older sister Sherry (by five years) does not remember Grandpa “ever NOT being blind.” Sherry said she remembers Mom taking Grandpa and us kids on the train to Chicago to have a specialist look at his eyes.

“I remember her holding a toddler in one arm,” Sherry does the math in her head—“that had to be you—and holding Grandpa’s arm with the other. I remember we had to wait outside the Men’s Room, for what Mom called a ‘nice man’ to come along and help Grandpa in the bathroom. So his vision loss had to be severe at the time…that would have been about 1945. He would have been 80.”

That conjured up another memory of Grandpa at the old farm house. Since there was no indoor plumbing until the early 50s, he had to go to the outhouse like everybody else, which he did by following a cord someone tied from the back door to the outhouse door—roughly fifty feet away. And he always went alone.

Sherry, by the way, has age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which is the leading cause of severe vision loss in people over 50. There is no cure for either glaucoma or AMD, but the good news is everything is going to hell anyway, and it’ll just get worse, so be happy with your beautiful visual memories.

I had another problem. The drops cost $100! And only lasted a month! My tiny Lumigan 2.5 ml. vial, containing 0.03% of Bimatoprost, is so tiny you can take it on a plane! That’s $1200 per year for eye drops because I don’t have Medicare’s Plan D.

But the good news: as I rewrite this piece (2-20-12), the generic Latanoprost Ophthalmic Solution, is now available for just $51! But that’s not all! You get three for $51!! Three months worth!!! That’s three times more medicine for one-half the price! And you don’t have to go to Canada or Mexico or just about any other country in the world for a better deal.

Another interesting read (if I could read print that small) are the side effects:

“BIMATOPROST may slowly cause permanent darkening of the eye (iris), eyelid, and eyelashes.

Growth and/or thickening of the eyelashes may also occur.

This change may not be noticeable for months to several years after starting this medicine.”

It sounds a lot like permanent makeup, doesn’t it? So these drops enhance a woman’s beauty, but what about us guys? The majority of us aren’t into the gothic look and don’t need longer, thicker eye lashes. Maybe if it somehow botoxed the wrinkles around the eyes or enhanced our virility? On the other hand, for gay guys it’s like a free lunch.

It’s ironic that years ago I wrote a song called “Don’t It Make My Blue Eyes Brown.” Of course, I wasn’t referring to eye drops, I was just spoofing on the country music cross-over hit at the time by Crystal Gayle, “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.”

What’s that? You want me to sing a few bars? Okay, just for you…

Haven’t moved my bowels today

Couldn’t move them yesterday

So that’s why this frown

And don’t it make my blue eyes brown

Then I read somewhere that “70% of blind people are unemployed.”

And my first question was, what do the other 30% do?

I told that to a friend and he said, “Answer the phone?”

I’ve always been a connoissewer of “inappropriate humor,” but when I asked my friend Noonan if he knew any blind jokes, he replied, without missing a beat, “Why was Helen Keller’s leg always yellow?”

Oh man, how could I forget Helen Keller jokes!?!? That kind of took the wind out of my idea that blind jokes were somehow rare because they were so “inappropriate.” Maybe because in my family blind jokes didn’t go over too well.

And if you’re still reading this and wondering why Ms Keller’s leg was always yellow, it was because her dog was blind too. haha

Helen Keller scholar Noonan’s deeper research has exposed the fact that Helen Keller was known to masturbate with two hands. Why two hands, you ask? The simple answer of course is she needed one hand to moan.

I called a friend and asked him how many blind people does it take to change a light bulb?

He answered with a question—“Why bother? They’re blind!”

Then my second oldest sister Kathy told me she was just diagnosed with glaucoma and also lost vision in her right eye. I’m not sure why I was so surprised by that genetic coincidence? It’s just that Kathy never wore glasses, never drank alcohol, and never smoked anything… I guess none of that matters when it’s part of your genetic make-up.

I think the part that especially bothered me was she lost vision while her pressure wasn’t even that high. Just 14, below the 16 level which is considered normal. It made me recall what else Dr. Kim said about glaucoma. To paraphrase Dr. Kim, “Glaucoma does whatever the hell it wants to!”

I also asked my cousin Evie, who lives back in central Wisconsin, where most of our clan still reside, and the family farm was located. She reports that three of my Mom’s seven sisters also had glaucoma, but the good news is they all lived well into their nineties, still had some vision, and were taking eye drops.

In case anyone had any doubt that glaucoma is genetic, only “11% of all blindness and 8% of visual impairment” is due to glaucoma, and it’s only the third most common cause of blindness in the U.S. But two of four children in my family is 50%, a bit higher, as is 3 of 9 of my Mom’s siblings. And Evie is still counting how many glaucoma-diseased cousins and second cousins we have.

After that I forgot about blind humor and started asking people questions like “If you had to choose between being blind and having no legs, which would it be?” It didn’t take long to realize people don’t like to think about that kind of stuff, so I pretty much stopped talking about it.

Then I saw a Dennis Miller stand-up routine where he said, “…as high as a Rastafarian with glaucoma.” That was funny to me, maybe because I never heard a glaucoma joke before, and now I have it.

Again I was lucky, because glaucoma is high on the list of legitimate medical reasons for smoking marijuana. The THC in cannabis helps reduce eye pressure, the main cause of retinal damage. And I had been living in Mendocino County, part of the marijuana producing “Emerald Triangle,” for most of my adult life. I knew enough people to know who grows and is willing to trade some medicinal herb for, let’s say, fresh, cage-free eggs or ripened-on-the-vine tomatoes… or money.

But I didn’t like the idea of drops every night. I wanted to slow down the side effects. I decided I would experiment before my next appointment in two months by taking the drops every other night and smoking pot every day! The problem was I spend my winters in Hawaii (boo hoo) and didn’t know any growers there. But I soon hooked up, although the price was rather steep at $300 per ounce! Not to mention how tough it was to make that ounce last for two months.

To make a long, self-incriminating story short, I returned to Dr. Kim only to find an even sweeter smile, saying not only have I not lost any more vision, but my pressure dropped to 13. Then her smile turned less sweet when I told her about my every-other-day experiment—and that I smoked pot every day! When I asked her opinion if she thought the cannabis helped reduce the pressure, her reaction was, “Don’t ask me for a medical marijuana recommendation.”

Sounds like someone has a cannabinoid deficiency!

I couldn’t help but feel that I was right, that my experiment showed I didn’t need the drops every night! And could it be the pot actually helps? Who would have thunk it?

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