The day, aged five, I lied to my ophthalmologist

When I was born, the doctor used forceps to pull me out. He misjudged, caught my right eye instead of my right temple, and did some damage. I had surgeries on my right eye at six months and three years to repair that damage.

I remember a little about the second surgery. I was badly frightened by the black mask that was brought down over my nose and mouth to put me under. When I woke up, I was in a crib in a room, and I was instantly angry because I was a big boy who slept in a bed. Dad came in and gently picked me up. I vividly recall floating through the air up to his shoulder; resting there was a great comfort and calmed me. I don’t remember this part of it, but Dad told the story frequently: at his shoulder I proclaimed, “They’re never going to do that to me again!”

Once a year I visited the ophthalmologist who performed the surgeries, a grandfatherly man named Hall. He looked around inside my right eye to check on things. He also checked my vision while he was at it, and it was always 20/20.

After the first surgery he patched that right eye, I’m guessing to let it rest while it healed. Here I am wearing my patch, aged about two in 1969, with my brother and my great grandma Grey. I have a vague memory of often pitching my head back like that, as it was easier to focus on subjects that way.

I think my parents and Dr. Hall were concerned because my left eye tended to wander toward my nose, especially when I was tired. I was concerned too, because the kids were all calling me cross-eyed. I think Dr. Hall was also working to help my eyes work in concert so I would have three-dimensional vision.

At some point Dr. Hall switched the patch to the left eye. I don’t remember why. Here I am with my brother at age three, at Easter in 1971, on my Grandpa Frederick’s garden tractor.

It’s hard to remember everything from those years as I was so young. But I remember well the day I lied to Dr. Hall and my parents.

I was five, or maybe four, at an annual visit to Dr. Hall where there was talk about whether my eyes were working together yet. I think Dr. Hall did some tests trying to figure that out for himself.

My eyes weren’t working together, and I knew it. I used one eye at a time, and I could easily switch between them. I favored my right eye. But whichever eye I was looking out of, the other eye let the view be wider, and provided peripheral vision, but that was it. When I looked out of my left eye for too long, I felt some strain. My right eye was strong and I could use it all day. But I was okay with all of this. I could do everything I cared to do at that age using my right eye. I was sick to death of wearing the patch, and of the other kids all teasing me about it.

Dr. Hall asked me if I saw out of both eyes together. With as much enthusiasm as I could pull together, I said yes. Dr. Hall and my parents didn’t seem convinced. One of them asked, “Are you sure?” With seriousness, I said yes again. They backed off, and after that I didn’t have to wear the patch anymore. Mission accomplished!

As a result, I’ve never had full three-dimensional vision. I’ve adapted well to a mostly two-dimensional view of the world as it’s all I’ve ever known. But there have been a couple of distinct drawbacks.

The first was in sports. When a ball was headed my way, I usually couldn’t track its location well as it came near to me. I missed catching a lot of footballs because of it. Worse, I got hit in the face by a lot of basketballs. That was especially problematic during the years I wore braces. Basketballs to the face tore my inner upper lip to shreds. Fortunately, I didn’t enjoy sports much and wasn’t that athletic anyway. I just gave up sports.

The other is in driving. I can tell I’m getting close to something because it gets larger. Occasionally I misjudge a little and either brake too early, or have to brake hard. The biggest challenge is the vision test at the BMV. Every time I’ve done it, I’ve had to put my eyes up to a viewfinder in a little machine. When you peer inside, you see a few rows of letters and numbers that you’re supposed to read aloud. But the machine is sneaky. Some of the letters appear for only the left eye, and some only for the right eye. To pass the test, I have to silently read each row with one eye and then the other, put the letters in the right order, and then recite them from memory!

I’ve had one unexpected benefit of being able to switch between my eyes. In high school my vision went nearsighted, my right eye considerably and my left eye slightly. Long story short, I’ve worn a gas-permeable contact in my right eye for going on 40 years. After taking out my one contact lens at night, if I want to watch TV before bed I do it with my left eye. My left eye also lets me find the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Telling that lie so many years ago had lifelong effects that I couldn’t predict then. So far, I haven’t regretted them. I hope that as I pass out of middle age I don’t start to.

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17 responses to “The day, aged five, I lied to my ophthalmologist”

  1. DougD Avatar

    Wow, that hits pretty close to home, my wife only sees in 2D as well. Her family is rife with vision problems, and if you look at her baby photos she’s obviously cross eyed. Her parents stupidly did not have it checked out and it wasn’t until she started school that her teacher noticed that little Tammy couldn’t see. At that point it was too late for the surgery but she did do the whole patch routine and her eye still pulls in when she’s tired.

    Driving is interesting, whenever she sees red lights ahead she immediately starts slowing down. On the highway I frequently tell her “it’s ok, they’re not slowing” because she can’t tell.

    Maybe seeing in 2D makes you a better photographer because what you’re seeing is closer to the final product.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      For some reason I don’t have trouble with cars slowing on the highway at night. I wonder why; it sure seems like I should.

      How infuriating that your wife’s parents didn’t address the obvious eye problems she had.

  2. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Wow, I thought I was the only person doing the DMV eyesight thing like that! My eyesight is so different eye to eye, that they can’t really totally correct it as I’d get a headache from the difference in image sizes. When I look into that machine, I literally see one side, and then when I colse that eye, the other side gets easier to read.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      At least we figured out that trick. Hard telling if we would have gotten licenses without it…

  3. sonny rosenberg Avatar

    Great story Jim, well told! I also have eyes that don’t always work in concert (I also had to wear an eye patch as a child, but I enjoyed it, I thought it made me look like a pirate). To this day my ability to see in three dimensions flickers in and out.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      My eye patch was just a big band-aid and I didn’t like how it looked. I especially didn’t like other kids commenting on it!

  4. tbm3fan Avatar

    You have no depth perception. The left eye gets injured in a forceps delivery because the most common fetal head position is the left occiput anterior. The immediate effect is rupture of Descemet’s membrane in the cornea leading to corneal edema which eventually resolves. However, the end result can be severe left astigmatism and secondary amblyopia. The amblyopia is why you where patched on the right to help the left develop it’s ocular map in your visual cortex if you will as the astigmatism compromised sharpness. Without clear vision from that eye the development of the visual cortex is hindered and then lost if not caught really soon, maybe.

    In my 41 year experience I have never seen a patched eye ever become equal to the good eye in any adult later in life. Many have gotten some control over the eye wandering and a few actually have 20/20 vision in the bad eye. However, the suppression of vision in that eye, brain learned when a baby, remains and so the moment the good eye is open then central vision in the other eye is turned off. Double vision will definitely cause that but so can blurred vision as a baby. Ergo, no depth perception. Forceps injuries are rare today compared to the past. They should never occur today knowing what is known, hopefully, by the doctor in the delivery room. Today you should still have the vertical slit(s) in Descemet’s visible under slit lamp examination.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      When I wrote this, you were in the back of my mind! What has indeed happened is astigmatism and amblyopia in the left eye. The amblyopia improved a lot on its own through my adolescence and now shows up only when I’m very tired. I love knowing more about this, and I thank you for sharing your knowledge. I can see that my situation is probably typical for those with forceps damage!

  5. brandib1977 Avatar

    What an ordeal for such a small tyke! I can’t imagine how terrifying it was for your parents as well.

    You have interesting timing. I recently almost failed my BMV eye exam so I went to the eye doctor. Turns out I am going from no glasses to bifocals. Yikes!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Wow, that’s a fast turn of events for you!

      1. brandib1977 Avatar

        Yeah. I fear it will be a tough adjustment.

  6. seatacphoto1951 Avatar

    I would not wear glasses to correct my left eye when I was very young. Now I have poor vision in that eye. I have no depth perception but have adjusted. I was at Eye Doctor yesterday because I am having trouble manual focusing. My eyes need a new pair of glasses. Most of the photographers I know that are my age rely on autofocus.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Hold on to your ability to manually focus as long as you can! I know the day will come for me someday that I’ll have to rely on autofocus. I’m going to enjoy my MF cameras as long as I can.

  7. William Hamblen Avatar
    William Hamblen

    Eye troubles: anisometropia (6 diopters difference left and right eyes), astigmatism, esotropia and hypertropia, congenital cataract in right eye (small and not central, fortunately), myelinated retinal nerve fibers right eye. Surgery corrected the worst of the strabismus, but my two eyes have never cooperated. Was treated for amblyopia, which worked, as acuity is good in both eyes. Never had a problem getting a driver’s license, although I drive right eyed. Cataract surgery recently got rid of the cataracts, acquired and congenital, and the need for corrective glasses except for readers. View-Masters and 3D movies have no special appeal. For some reason I do have a Stereo Realist on the shelf. And I have shot stereo slides with it, which my friend appreciated, at least.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Solidarity brother. I’m much the same, except no cataracts (yet). I do everything right-eyed. I forgot all about how View-Masters were not very much fun for me as a kid!

  8. Oh!Gust Avatar

    I tried to explain amblyopia to my colleague at work today, a 16 year old American boy, but did not know the word. We were comparing our driver’s licenses (his was just a permit, to be specific) and mine had a note that I need to use glasses when driving. The last time I wore glasses while driving would be close to driving school and I’ve done that 5 years ago. So far, my vision is enough for driving. And for pretty much everything.

    My parents told me that as a small child, I would be afraid of ophtalmologist appointments and examinations. I was cross-eyed too and got it fixed by a surgery when I was 4-5. I remember the way to the operating room and the dizzy feeling after waking up. That is when I started to wear glasses, with bigger correction for the lazy left eye and just a little correction for the right eye, for less difference. My parents would also regularly take me to a very nice nurse in the ophtalmology department that would do eye exercise with me and I had to wear a patch at home. I hated the patch, too!

    The years went by, I stopped wearing the patch and visiting the eye exercises too. The correction on the left eye eventually got smaller. My ophtalmologist and the mentioned nurse would laugh at me for years since I was a child, because at the checkups I memorized the order of the letters to read and therefore would convince them that my vision is better.

    I stopped wearing glasses in high school around 17 (that’s when I did driving school), because it started to annoy me. I only wore them for school and around the people, did not wear them at home or around town. Then I tried contact lenses, but it wasn’t really for me (did not make me really see better, sometimes even worse, blurry) and I quitted after a few months. Now at 22 I go to another ophtalmologist (the one from my childhood moved her office ~50 km away from our town) and she told me that it got better with the time, I can wear a lens in the left eye to make it a little bit better, but it won’t really get better. I have never really known whether I am near-sighted or far-sighted, but it would probably be far-sighted. One thing I’m afraid of is getting older and have the visibility worse, or to lose the right eye’s 20/20 vision. But let’s hope for many visible days to come.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It’s surprising to me how many people like you are writing in to say they have similar issues to me! I didn’t know there were this many of us.

      Having 20/20 vision is very nice to be sure. I haven’t had it since high school. I’ve worn a gas permeable contact lens in my right eye since 1986. I don’t bother to correct my weak left eye.

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