I was running last June when I first noticed the burnt orange flashes of light in my vision.
Every mile or so, a shape would appear for an instant, interrupting my line of sight on the path up ahead. As quickly as it came, the shape would blink away. Initially I brushed off the issue as nothing unusual. Simply my mind playing tricks on me or my contact slipping out of place. Maybe I just needed more sleep?
But when the shapes came back the following day, and the day after that, I started to suspect something was wrong.
They reminded me of being a kid, when I would push the heels of my hands firmly against my closed eyes until floating neon dots would appear out of a dark sky. But these new shapes were different. They were not spurred on by my childhood imagination, but crept into my vision uninvited.
As weeks wore on, the shapes turned from orange to black, and they started to grow like an expanding oil spill — viscous and slow. I relented and visited a doctor who told me that without surgery, the shapes could forever take me into darkness.
His diagnosis: At 25 years old, I was rapidly working my way toward a detached retina.
Scleral Buckle Surgery
Flat on my back in a cold operating room, I lay awake as doctors attached a silicone band around the circumference of my left eyeball. I can still remember the sound of metal tools clinking together, the doctors’ softly spoken instructions and my own vital signs being announced.
“I’m definitely feeling a lot of pain,” I kept telling the anesthesiologist nearby who was tasked with keeping me awake and comfortable. He did one job better than the other.
A claustrophobia-inducing pile of blue sterile sheets blanketed the rest of my face. I knew what was happening would ultimately change my most treasured sense forever, and yearned to flail my arms and legs and yell “Stop!”
Instead, I lay there feeling trapped, daydreaming about running my familiar route to keep myself calm. I thought of the telephone pole covered in an armor made of staples, the manhole cover that would give a satisfying “thud” if you landed on it just right, and the tree with the smooth, patchy bark where I liked to sit and stretch (and sometimes nap) after a long run.
After I emerged from surgery, the recovery period was difficult and long. If I let my pulse quicken, I would feel a pounding in my eye. Any eye movement came with the punishment of dull pain. Daylight felt like a hot laser shooting directly into my retinas. My vision was blurry and I had to focus hard to avoid seeing in double vision.
I sat in stillness for weeks, listening to books on tape in a darkened room, doing everything I could to keep my eyes still.
When my vision began to return and I was green-lighted for exercise, I wasted little time before lacing up my running shoes. Surgery had left me feeling vulnerable, weak and out of control of my own body. More than anything, I wanted to feel strong again.
My first run back was short and slow — 1½ miles around the Panhandle. My eye still throbbed; loud enough I could hear it over The Black Keys songs that blared in my headphones. My vision was so bad I could barely spot the cracks in the path, so I often tripped where tree roots had buckled the pavement. Feeling defeated after my first run, I wondered if I’d ever be able to call myself a runner again.
But over the following months, I started running farther — 6 miles, 8 miles, 10 miles — and faster — a 9:00 per mile pace, then 8:30, then 7:50. Before long, I was running better than I had during my cross-country days in high school and with an ease that was all new. In moments that I felt tired or like I couldn’t continue, I would think back to how I had felt on the operating table. I began to treat each run as a celebration of health.
This Sunday, at 5:42 a.m., I’ll set off with thousands of other runners for the first half of the San Francisco Marathon (bib no.: 32027). It is my first race since surgery and comes two weeks after my one-year checkup with the eye doctor.
Though my vision is still not 100 percent, it’s gotten better and my brain is learning to make sense of the changes. A part of my body will never be the same, but I have found new strength elsewhere.
And there are a few things I see more clearly these days: how running is as much about mental strength as physical ability; how the human body can seem in one moment fleeting and delicate, and in another, resilient and strong; how you can’t always predict the path that lies ahead, but you can make yourself keep running it.