I am not writing any more about That Virus. There’s enough out there already. So let’s talk about eyeballs…

I was not in the front row when the eyeballs were dished out. In fact my parents had an enduring memory of the doctor they consulted about mysterious features of my baby behaviour, who opened the conversation with “How long have you known your son was blind?”

File photo: Unsplash.com.

Eventually, I was subjected to a rather disgusting operation involving the removal of both eyeballs from their sockets, which worked. I could see. This was followed shortly after by the discovery that I could not see very much without glasses.

Of course, I was too young to register most of this, but all of the numerous family photographs of me as a young thing have spectacles, so I must have started early. The matter was never discussed, but I now realise that this eventful history explains why I could not catch or hit flying balls, a source of great frustration to a growing boy.

Anyway, let us fast forward a few decades. I am now slightly older than Donald Trump, a bit younger than Joe Biden and quite a bit younger than Bernie Sanders. Why any of these three old geezers think it is a good idea to apply at this time of life for a strenuous job with a four-year contract is a complete mystery to me.

Like most of us mature people, I take a few pills every day to keep various blood test levels in the green zone, but so far none of the machinery had actually needed replacement, until this January.

During my annual vision checks the eye guy had been murmuring politely for some years that I had cataracts on the way. I did the things one does to slow their progress: peaked hats, sunglasses, avoid bright sunlight. But this only gets you so far.

Apparently quite a lot of people get cataracts sooner or later. I do not know why this is rarely written about. Axel Munthe says at the end of “The Story of San Michele” that he is now banished by eye problems from his beloved Capri and confined to a darkened room, which I suppose means that the connection between sunshine and cataracts had already been established, but in those days there was no treatment.

What happens is that the lens in your eye turns brown, or white in appearance, and eventually becomes opaque. This is one of those problems which makes you glad you were not born 50 years earlier because the remedy is now quite routine. The ailing lens is removed and replaced by a plastic one.

I know the time had come when I started seeing circular rainbows and other oddities round bright lights at night. According to Wikipedia, this is a fairly standard symptom. The eye guy could see what was going on and we decided on immediate action.

This coincided with the first wave of the coronavirus scare, so you have to imagine my visits to the palace of optometry featuring hand sanitizer, temperature checks and compulsory wearing of masks.

Compared with this the actual operation was rather lacking in medical drama, at least for the victim. They do one eye at a time, for obvious reasons, and the procedure only takes 20-25 minutes.

Some nervous customers apparently prefer to sleep through this, but they are missing an interesting experience, though not perhaps one you would want to repeat too often.

The uncomfortable bit is at the beginning when they put in your eye a gadget which, I presume, prevents you from blinking at an inopportune moment. Then they cut a couple of small holes in the eyeball under discussion with a laser, which from your point of view means a rather spectacular light show, projected right into your eyeball.

After this, you move to the theatre proper, where the old lens is liquidized with ultrasound and the new plastic one inserted. The view from your operated eye at this point is rather odd – the other eye is covered up in case of splashes – but it’s all on a local anaesthetic so you don’t really feel anything.

You keep the new eye covered for a few hours and wear a plastic cover on it in bed for a day or two. And that’s pretty much it. If you are approaching this little landmark in life’s rich pageant it’s nothing to worry about.

The interesting bit for me came afterwards. I did not realise that the cataracts had turned my view of the world yellow. The first eye to be fixed presented a new blue world. So for a while, I had one eye seeing yellow and one seeing blue, an accidental piece of political symbolism.

The drawback of the plastic lenses is that they are fixed, not flexible like the original equipment. So you have to decide whether you want them to be short-sighted, and wear glasses for driving, or long-sighted, and wear glasses for reading.

I opted for long, which means that most of the time I do not need glasses. This is disconcerting. I have been wearing them all the time for so long that I still feel naked without them.

On the other hand, the reading glasses are a snip compared with the complicated ones which compensated for the deficiencies of my old eyes. A perfectly good pair of reading specs from Japan Home Store costs a princely HK$89.

Curiously I find things in the far distance much more interesting now that I can see them effortlessly. I find myself captivated by the lacy silhouette of trees on a distant crest, or the subtle variations in the slope of the hills on the other side of the Shing Mun River Valley.

And everything still looks bluer than I expect. There is, perhaps, a lesson here. We tend to think that the way we see things is exactly how they are. Clearly, in more areas than simple vision this is an illusion. There are different ways of seeing the same thing and we should try to be humble about our own.


Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.