By Kathy Berken
Why am I so happy that my appointment with my brand new ophthalmologist is behind me? A few weeks ago, my optometrist saw some unusual pigmentation in my eyes and referred me to a specialist. Ever since my first bout with breast cancer 15 years ago and my most recent one last year, I get nervous when doctors say things like that. Do I have eye cancer? Will I go blind? What does unusual pigmentation even mean?
Am I the only one, or is this counterintuitive to you, too? Didn’t our parents always tell us never to look at bright lights? So why do eye doctors shine the brightest light known to humankind directly into your eye at point blank range? My eyes watered and my stress levels increased geometrically with each beam of blinding light. I can report now, though, that my pupils have returned to normal size and I can see just fine.
After the light-in-my-eyes ordeal, I thought I was done. The pigmentation was nothing to worry about, so I was good to go, right? Nope, that was just the start.
I’ve had a slow-growing cyst directly under my left eye for years. (You can’t see it in my picture here because the photographer airbrushed it out.) It now gets in the way of my reading, and it bugs me, so I asked the doc about it. He thought it was benign, and, yes, he can “snip it off right here in the office today if you want to wait.” Well, OK then. Let’s do it.
After an hour wait, my anxiety from the blinding light experience was replaced by impatience to just get this over with, and I was back in the exam room with a prepped surgical team. Then, as soon as I put my head back in the chair, the fun began. First, the doc pulls out a black sharpie and points it at my eye. “Planning to draw some pictures on my face?” I asked. “Just some smiley faces,” he grins. Seriously, “is that a permanent marker?” “Yes. I need to mark where I’m going to cut.” Yikes. “So . . . how long before the black wears off?” “Oh, about three years,” he deadpans. Good one, doc.
We start with “I’m going to give you a shot to numb the area. It might burn a little.” No problem. When you’ve gone through cancer surgery and chemo, what’s a little burning needle to the eye? Nothing, when a doctor you’ve only just met is also a comedian. You have to trust a guy like that, right?
The nurse offers me her hand so I can feel reassured, and I ask them to distract me, wherein the conversation moves to winter vacations on sandy beaches. If only.
So far, I’m still in the chair. I somehow trust the funnyman doc and his compassionate nurse to get me through.
While he’s cutting and tugging on the cyst he asks if I’ve taken any aspirin lately. “I took an Aleve last night. Why?” “Because you’re blood is not clotting.” Oh expletive deleted, now what? “Not to worry, I’ll just cauterize it” and with that I feel the hot poker by my eye and suddenly smell burning flesh, and then, holy cow, I see smoke. Smoke rising from my face! Are you kidding me?! “I’m writing about this in my column,” are the first words I hear myself say. “Just don’t use my name,” he says. Ha.
The ordeal is over and in the mirror I see a black spot the size of a pencil eraser where the cyst used to be. It could have been worse.
I don’t know why I trusted this doctor and his nurse, whom I just met. Except that earlier in the day I had met with a college student for her regular spiritual direction session, and we both sensed the presence of God as I walked her through a spontaneous guided meditation.
Now I ponder this question. What would make me think that God would be present only for that hour for her and not for me during my darkest hour in the clinic later in the day?
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton 1999-2009 and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)