Stories Told

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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