During a routine eye check-up in my thirties, my doctor diagnosed Fuchs Dystrophy. Having been blessed with 20/20 vision all of my life, this came as a shock. He advised me to wear dark sunglasses all the time to prevent my eyes from flooding with light. On mornings when my vision was more impaired than usual, blow-drying my eyes three or four times might help. Blow dry my eyes? I couldn’t even blow dry my hair. The best option, he said, was a cornea transplant.
The man was clearly on crack. Best option and cornea transplant didn’t belong in the same sentence. Besides, I had perfect vision. I didn’t see that doctor again or find a new one. No need, you know?
Flash forward twenty years. His diagnosis was like the time-delay curse Malicifant laid on Aurora. I almost forgot about looming doom but his prophecy didn’t forget me. Before I knew it, I was face to face with Fuchs.
You’ve never heard of it? That’s because it’s relatively rare, occurring in roughly one percent of the population. My sisters and I all have it – my case is the worst – because it’s hereditary. I trace my case to my paternal grandmother, who rinsed her eyes with boric acid in a futile effort to remove the film on them. I spent hours scrubbing reading glasses hoping to make paper white and ink black like they used to be. On the left, below, see how printed material looks to normal people. On the right, see what people who have Fuchs see. (All illustrations copied from http://www.fuchs-dystrophy.org/ourview.html.)
How does Fuchs make it seem like your eyes and/or glasses got smeared with Vaseline overnight while you slept?
People with Fuchs have dead or dysfunctional cornea cells that will never, ever, regenerate. Consequently, they’re not available to balance fluids which build in the cornea – particularly overnight when your eyes remain closed for hours. People with Fuchs wake up unable to read a newspaper but their vision improves as the day grows long. The cornea swells and thickens causing glare, blurred vision, and sensitivity to light. Tiny painful blisters can form on the surface of the cornea. There is no cure, no preventative medicine and no way to predict how bad or how fast an individual case will develop. So far, neither of my sisters require treatment for their Fuchs. I’m the lucky one.
Subconsciously, I’d been compensating for Fuchs for years. At social occasions, I’d surveil the room and target the chair facing furthest away from the sun. I stopped driving at night because every head light, street light and tail light exploded with star bursts and halos, making it anyone’s guess whether the Ventura highway featured twelve lanes or six, let alone which one was mine.
Below left, a depiction of how a sufferer sees headlights. On the right, how streetlights look to me.
A total lack of depth perception launched me face first off curbs or the final step of a staircase until I learned to clutch the railing and train my eyes on the ground.
So I agreed to a transplant. My surgeon, Dr. Anthony Aldave, was a leader in the field who published over a hundred research papers on Fuchs. He’s also tall, dark and handsome, hotter than many who play doctors in movies and TV. As my sister Joyce put it when she consulted him about her Fuchs, “Hubba hubba.” Not surprisingly, he’s the cover-boy on the Jules Stein Institute’s brochure.
He’s charming, funny and interesting. Not every surgeon would run with the bulls in Pamplona. He chose eye surgery because it demands tiny, delicate, perfect stitches. He’s so good I don’t even jump when he uses tweezers to pull a broken stitch out of my eyeball. I’ve learned to love eye drops.
It’s a good thing, too, since Dr. Aldave and I won’t be going our separate ways anytime soon. At any time, I could still reject the transplant in my right eye and one of these days I’ll need another dead person’s cornea stitched into my left.