Gosh. Where do I even start?
The last month and a half has been one of the most challenging times in so many ways. As an active human being, I’ve had my fair share of injuries in my past ranging from sprained ankles all the way up to fracture ribs (YAY Cyclocross!) and dislocated vertebrae. This one knocked me off my rocker more than any of my previous ones. Retinal Detachment is nothing to bat your eyes about (pun totally intended!).
So what the hell exactly happened? Sure as hell wasn’t anything I did. Doctors and Retinal Surgeons told me it wasn’t my fault. Bad genes, being super nearsighted (-9.50 prior to my laser corrective surgery in 2010), and thin retinas made me a prime target for retinal detachment (RD). It was going to eventually happen, and most likely when I was “older.” So much for that.
First thing I noticed was the “classic” black curtain in the lower right corner of my left eye’s field of vision. Then in the darkness of closing my eyes, I started seeing arc-like flashes of light around the periphery. These symptoms started popping up the weekend of August 29th during my bikepacking ride from Leadville to Denver. While not debilitating (no pain at all), it was annoying and everything that Dr. Google said pointed to RD.
Everything that I read about RD said “this is a medical emergency.” As soon as I arrived back in Denver, I called the TeleNurse line at Denver Health. The last thing I wanted to do was waltz into the ER during the COVID pandemic. From there, I chatted with a nurse who instructed me to go to the ER. I had plans to go to a BBQ that afternoon, so of course I had to ask the question “Can I go to the ER in a couple hours, or do I need to go now?” It was a resounding NOW.
After hanging out in the ER for a handful of hours getting my pupils dilated, getting bright lights with lenses shining in every corner by a team of medical professionals to include ophthalmologists and retinal surgeons, the diagnosis was official…Rhegmatogenous Retinal Detachment in my left eye.
The good news, I caught it early enough to avoid a vitrectomy which can involve laying face down for 3-4 weeks. The sort of bad news is, the scleral buckle will cause my previously corrected eye to become nearsighted with double vision, I may end up needing cataract surgery later, and my right eye was starting to show signs of what they call lattice degeneration. Oh yay.
OFF TO SURGERY!
Within 24 hours of my ER visit, I was back at the hospital getting prepped for surgery. They were able to squeeze me in at 3pm, which meant I was ravenously hungry going into surgery having fasted since midnight the night before (I had already eaten lunch when I came to the ER). And if I had a dollar for every time I heard “You’re really young to be having this kind of surgery!” Well duh. I just wanted it to be over with.
My retinal surgeon, Dr. Huvard was awesome. We went over exactly what was going to happen and I gave him full permission to do whatever he needed to once he had me under. The last thing I wanted was to have to go back for any additional follow up surgeries unless absolutely needed.
Waking up I was pretty groggy and had a patch over my left eye. Was told everything went as planned with the scleral buckle and cryopexy, but my surgeon ended up adding the gas bubble (pneumatic retinopexy with C3F8 to be specific), which added an additional layer to my recovery plan. Hooray.
RECOVERY (THE SUCKY PART!)
Two words come to mind with regard to recovering from RD surgery. GLACIAL SPEED.
Pictures below are a depiction of what I saw out of my left eye post surgery for the first 2 weeks (left photo) and where I’m at now (right photo). The only way I can describe what I see is it’s a lot like when you open up your eyes in water. Cloudy and blurry. Because of the double vision and bubble, I kept my eye patch on 100% of the time. In doing so, I struggled with depth perception. I didn’t trust myself to cook anything and even filling up my glass with water, there were several accidents. Stepping off of curbs made me cautious of crossing the street.
I also found out that in Colorado, you just need one good eye to legally drive. Kind of scary!! Out of sheer courtesy to my fellow road users (drivers, cyclists, etc.), I only drive when I absolutely have to, I use delivery and ride sharing services when I can (thank goodness for Amazon, GrubHub, Instacart, Uber, etc.), and avoid driving at night because of the glares and halos. My good eye is definitely working overtime, but at almost 2 months after surgery, the double vision is gone and I can function well enough to cook a regular meal.
Remember how I mentioned the gas bubble added an additional layer to my recovery plan? Well, this meant no ascending altitudes above 6,000′ as long as the gas bubble is present. For all my science nerd friends: P1V1 = P2V2. For all my non-science friends, what happens to a sealed bag of chips when you drive to the Eisenhower Tunnel? Yeah, that is what could potentially happen to my eyeball. No bueno friends. No bueno.
This meant no driving up to the mountains and no flying. It’s not being at altitude that’s the dealbreaker, it’s the rate of ascent. Being in a car or airplane, your eye doesn’t get a chance to acclimate to the altitude. So the proper “protocol” to ascend safely is to stop and acclimate for 30 minutes for every 500 feet of gain. So the next time you get in your car for a drive up to the mountains, watch your altimeter and you’ll see how fast you climb.
Having to be careful with ascending to higher altitudes when you live in a state where you reach higher altitudes within a 20-30 minute drive from your home definitely adds a layer of frustration that flatlanders will never have to experience. I made it up a 1/2 mile up Golden Gate Canyon Road in Golden before I had to turnaround. So ridiculous.
For the first couple of weeks it was no bending over or lifting over 5 pounds, then I could slowly add 5 pounds each week thereafter.
I know my endurance athlete friends can relate to this. I was told by the doc to “take it easy.” Well, I had to ask to define easy because easy for me would be a ride up Lookout Mountain Road. My doctor shook her head. The activity level of an “average American.” So basically a walk around the park since going on a hike would require going up to altitude. Oh boy.
As an athlete this is nothing like recovering from broken ribs, torn ligaments, etc. where you have pain to dictate how much you can push yourself. Other than my vision being effected, imagine you were told you can’t do anything you love when your body feels completely fine and is physically capable. Most people would say “I never listen to my PT or doctor” but in this case, the consequences are permanent and irreversible. As in irreversible and permanent vision loss. You can get a new ACL, but eyeball? Not so much. Yeah, this has been frustrating to say the least.
When I came out of surgery, there was an arrow drawn on my eye patch. My job was to keep that arrow perpendicular to the ground, which meant sleeping upright with my head tilted to the right. I also had to maintain this position as much as possible while awake in order to keep the air bubble in the one o’clock position of my eyeball, to help push the retina back into place. Also absolutely no lying flat on my back (goodbye massages!). For 2.5 weeks I slept on the couch like I was priming up for a Night at the Roxbury (minus the head bobbing).
Needless to say all the restrictions and vision impairments have made things pretty frustrating in an already challenging time. Here are a few top frustrations I’ve been dealing with:
- Getting asked “what happened, what did you do?” repeatedly. Now I just respond with “I held my breath until my eyes popped out!” and just wait… 😜
- …followed by “when will you be back to normal or 100%? Well, the answer to that is NEVER. My vision will never be what it used to be and any improvements at this point is icing on the cake. This is my new normal.
- Knowing my right eye is a ticking time bomb waiting for RD to happen. I’m having laser surgery in a few weeks to help prevent any further degeneration. Crossing my fingers!
MOVING ON & GRATITUDE
So what now? Well, as my mom has always reminded me “when you fall, pick yourself back up and keep moving forward.” I’ll keep trying to embrace my new normal, whatever that is today or two months from now.
Just like you can find anything on Amazon, I was able to find a support group for RD patients on Facebook. Some have challenges far beyond anything I’ve experienced and many have shared the same frustrations. From time to time we try to find the humor in our condition. When the Vice Presidential Debate was on TV and the infamous fly made it’s appearance on Pence’s head, we all were asking each other if that was a floater or an actual fly. Sometimes you just have to laugh.
One thing is for sure, when you go through something like this, it makes you truly appreciate the people in your life. Not having any family nearby or in the same country, I’ve been blessed with so many amazing friends who jumped right in to help me out during my time of need and continue to offer their support checking in to make sure I haven’t fallen off the deep end. Thank you for your support, but most of all thank you for your friendship!
I am blessed. I am lucky. I am resilient. I am vulnerable. I am okay (most days 😉).
Now it’s time to head out to the next adventure!
P.S. SMALL WORLD
During all this craziness, little did I know there were two degrees of separation between me and the ER doctor in charge, but this was not discovered until a week after surgery.
Good friend and Chief Hippie in Charge of 303Endurance Bill Plock was out on a bike ride with triathlete and ER physician Jeff Sankoff who is also a triathlon coach with a podcast called The TriDoc Podcast. Bill was a guest on the podcast a few weeks prior and the two decided to meet up for a ride.
Bill is one of the those people who is naturally inquisitive about the world around him. Somehow he brought up the topic of retinal detachments and mentioned that his friend just had surgery. As the conversation went on, Dr. Sankoff asked “Did this friend of yours just ride her bike from Leadville back to Denver?” The answer was a resounding yes. Little did I know one of the ER docs that came in to evaluate me was the TriDoc himself! Check out Episode 49 of his podcast to listen to how our paths crossed during this most challenging time.