Lying on an operating table in New York, sleepy but still awake and very nervous, I could hear the two surgeons chatting as they began cutting into my left eye.
“That lens has to go,” said one.
I started feeling claustrophobic under the green mask, which covered my good eye but left the injured one exposed to their blades. I knew what was going on, because I had opted for a local anaesthetic. The surgeons weren’t sure what they would find. A 6mm piece of shrapnel had blasted through my eye, tearing the retina and detaching it completely. The tiny missile had taken some my iris with it and lodged against my optic nerve. I had been warned the prognosis was not good.
“How are you doing in there?” asked Stanley Chang, M.D., who had invented some of the microsurgery equipment he was using to operate on me.
“Stop the whale music,” I managed to croak. I suppose it was meant to calm me down in a New Age sort of way, but I’ve always found it incredibly irritating. Something Brazilian came on; they got on with cutting.
The shrapnel had caused extensive hemorrhaging, and blood had pooled behind the retina. To reattach the retina and same the eye, the blood needed to be scraped out, bit by microscopic bit. Scrape, scrape, scrape; I was now about four hours into the operation.
I had been exhausted but hopeful the night I arrived in New York by air medivac from Sri Lanka. It was late on April 19, three days after soldiers fired the grenade that injured me while I was on assignment for the London Sunday Times. My mother and my sister, Cat, were waiting for me at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. So was Chang.
He gave me the verdict I had not expected: He said that though he would try to save the eye, he didn’t think the chances were good with such a traumatic injury.
I appreciated his honesty—he is a quiet-spoken man whose manner inspires unquestioning confidence—but it hadn’t occurred to me that my injured eye might have to come out. I went to sleep in tears, the first time I had cried since being injured. I think it was because it only hit me then that my life would never be the same.
In the next few days, I wrote myself questions to ask the doctor in a pre-op examination. Rereading them last week, I relived my fears. Although I knew I had probably lost my sight, the idea of my eye being removed was unbearable.
The worst part of the operation came toward the end. Chang tried again and again to reattach the retina, but couldn’t. I remember at one point hearing him say, “We are going to attach this retina.” Finally, after five and a half hours, Chang succeeded and silicone oil was injected into my eye to keep the retina in place.
The ordeal had just begun, however. Nurses were under orders to place me on my stomach, to keep the retina and oil in place. Waves of nausea and pain engulfed me. I lost any sense of politeness, yelling at the nurses to please give me something to stop the pain. It’s an impossible position, having to lie on your stomach and keep your head down, when all you want to do is vomit and have the pain go away.
The next three days passed in a haze. I remember thinking, “I want this eye out,” regretting ever agreeing to surgery to save it, just wanting the pain to go away.
Chang was unexpectedly poetic when he delivered his verdict on my operation.
“Your retina was like a morning glory folded in on itself,” he said, making a slow, clenching motion with his hand. “A morning glory full of blood.”
The good news was that, although I had lost the perception of light and dark, I would keep the eye. And there was no evidence yet of “sympathetic ophthalmia,” a condition that can blind the second eye after one is injured.
On the fourth day, I went to a service apartment in New York City to recuperate. My eye was covered in a bulky white bandage. I presented a bizarre spectacle to the curious, because I had to walk looking at the ground to keep the retina and oil in place.
I was still under doctor’s orders to lie on my stomach for a week. But there was one thing I had to do before getting into bed: I smoked a couple of cigarettes, then took off the bandage and looked in the mirror for the first time.