Don’t delay cataract surgery

I suffered foggy vision needlessly, not knowing the procedure -- and recovery -- would be easy

It’s now been 15 years since my cataract surgery.

I knew cataracts — a clouding of the normally clear lens of the eye — could develop at any age.

But I also knew they were mostly a problem in those older than me. So it took me awhile to figure out why my vision was blurring. I got new prescriptions for my eyeglasses a couple of times, but the visual improvements were less than satisfactory and the blurriness persisted. I made an appointment to see an ophthalmologist and was told the problem was caused by clouding of the lenses inside the eyes and new glasses wouldn’t help.

I wasn’t ready for any eye surgery. I felt my vision wasn’t that bad, and I knew that a progression of the cataracts wouldn’t do any damage to other parts of my eyes.

So I waited.

I struggled while I waited. Night vision was the biggest problem. I started to curtail my nighttime driving because my car was not equipped with the six high-beam headlights I felt were necessary to display the passing scenery.

The glare from headlights of oncoming cars was also very distressing — these defuse wads of light seemed like they were coming from trains and made it made it even more difficult for me to see other objects.

Inside my home, I found myself replacing 50-watt light bulbs with 100-watt bulbs. And then only after I’d dusted off the 50-watt ones, figuring they must be covered with grit and grime.

Reading became such an effort that I let my medical journals stack-up, and I pretty much gave up on newspapers.

I eventually decided that blurring and dimming of vision was a problem I did not need and could not cope with.

Surgery was scheduled. The right eye was done first and the left eye followed three weeks later. With each procedure, I was on my way home about two hours after my arrival at an outpatient surgery center.

Intravenous medication allowed me to sleep through the amazingly brief time the surgeon was at work. I experienced no pain. After each procedure, I left with a patch on the operated eye and an appointment to see the surgeon the next morning.

Having seen more than a few movies, I expected the patch removal to be a dramatic event. Certainly there would be at least a small expectant crowd around me. Wrong!

An assistant performed the unpatching in ho-hum fashion with no one else in sight — not even the ophthalmologist. (In retrospect, I appreciated their confidence.)

The patch removal was emotionally charged for me. First of all, I was relieved that I could see … anything.

Then I realized I could see everything. The blurriness was gone, but I was most impressed with the brightness and intensity of colors. It was only after removeal of the patch following the first surgery that I realized how much I’d been missing. No wonder I was so unimpressed with the color change in the leaves the previous fall.

Other than the inconvenience of making a few post-operative visits to the eye doctor, my biggest trouble following surgery was using the eye drops.

Remembering to use them wasn’t easy, but perfecting the aim was more problematic. More than a few drops hit my nose, cheek or eyebrow before I mastered the technique. Fortunately, the drop ritual ended three weeks after the last surgery. I did gain a sense of appreciation for the nuisance experienced by my drop-using patients.

I had prepared many hundreds of my patients for cataract surgery, but there’s nothing like going through it all yourself to crisply define the experience.

In the not-so-long-ago old days, cataract surgery meant a distressing week in the hospital followed by eyeglasses that weighed five pounds. Now the whole thing is almost drive-through, and the glasses (if needed) are ordinary.

It’s hard not to be impressed. Fifteen years after my cataract surgery, my vision without glasses remains better than 20/20.

Dr. Michael Spilane, now retired, spent more than four decades practicing and teaching geriatric medicine in St. Paul. Send comments or questions to [email protected].