Are you familiar with Ocular Histoplasmosis Syndrome? Read on to learn about this rare but sometimes devastating visual condition can affect those who have lived in Missouri, Arkansas, parts of Oklahoma, as well as other states.
I have attempted to write this post twice before and I hope the saying about the third time being charmed is true. I am in a state of uncertainty about how to talk about my own issues, especially about my health, in light of my blog’s focus on books and reading. I don’t want to make this about me — but don’t know a better way to illustrate how vision can shape the worlds of us all, particularly those who love and promote reading. So, I will share my vision story while I prepare for my cataract surgery tomorrow morning.
My vision problems became apparent when I was eleven years old. I remember that my dad noticed that I was squinting and pointed it out to me, suggesting that I try to break what could become a bad habit. He also decided to have my eyes examined and I was diagnosed with myopia and fitted for glasses. I was also subjected to weekly sessions in a darkened room at the optometrist’s office with exercises that were designed to improve my vision. I don’t remember any positive results from the exercises, but have memories of how tedious and boring they were.
The good news was that I could see beauty in new detail with my new glasses. The shimmering leaves became visible individually and the fluffy white clouds appeared to take on lives of their own.
The bad news was that I could also see (what I perceived as) ugliness in detail. The only positive effect of my glasses was that they partly camouflaged my pimples and the red birthmark on my cheek. I could also see much better, so I wore them.
I had heard the Dorothy Parker trope which was popular at that time: “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.” At age eleven, I had no experience with men (or boys) making passes, but I had hopes for the future. My glasses didn’t reassure me, and as I entered high school, I became even more dissatisfied with my appearance. I was given permission to experiment with makeup (with strict admonishments when my experiments went too far) and I looked for ways to “accentuate the positive”, as the teen magazines advised.
Very fortunately for me, contact lenses became available and I was fitted for mine in 1963, when I was a junior. Some of my friends tried to wear them without success, but I was determined and fought through the days of getting accustomed to the hard lenses. I had chosen vivid blue lenses, which made them easier to see if dropped and which made my eyes a rather startling color, which I loved.
With my new contacts, new skills in makeup, and the new popularity of hair teased and sprayed into unconquerable heights, I finished high school and entered college with new-found self-confidence. I thought that my vision problems were over. They weren’t.
It is true that I had years of uncompromised vision — time enough to complete college, marry and have children, and enter a career as a librarian. I am grateful that my contacts gave me few problems, other than an occasional broken or lost lens and discomfort from wearing them too long or (horrors!) while sleeping.
Then I noticed an oddity in my vision, a certain waviness in the outside line marking the lanes of the highway where I was driving. By this time I was in my early forties and so accustomed to seeing without difficulty that I convinced myself that the problem would disappear. It didn’t.
I made an appointment with my optometrist and he sent me to the Dean McGee Eye Institute in Oklahoma City. Their tests concluded that the wavy line was a result of Ocular Histoplasmosis Syndrome, a rare bi-product of a fungal infection that I had as a child.
I learned that as many as 90% of the population in the states where it is endemic (including all of Missouri and Arkansas and part of Oklahoma) have had the infection, which is spread by breathing the spores released by bird and bat droppings in those areas. (It turns out that people in the construction trades are especially vulnerable, since their work often includes the disturbance of the soil where the bird droppings fall. My dad was a building contractor and we usually lived near or in subdivisions he was developing.)
Most of those infected by histoplasmosis are not aware of it, because the symptoms are similar to a cold or mild flu. Occasionally it can spread to other parts of the body and cause serious illness. Rarely, the spores can travel from the lungs to the eye(s), eventually causing vision problems or loss.
What I was seeing was the result of the growth of abnormal blood vessels. I was told that surgery was an option and that waiting could sooner or later result in the movement of the affected area to the center of my vision.
I decided to wait (for just a while). Within a couple of weeks, the movement had occurred, and my vision was gone in the center of my right eye. It was and is as if someone placed a gray splotch in front of whatever I focus on (including any sentence or paragraph I’m reading or any person’s face I’m trying to recognize). It was final and irreversible.
My eyes adapted and my left eye took over the tasks my right eye could no longer perform. I continued my life as usual until middle (and beyond middle) age took their toll. Isn’t it amazing how many conditions can affect something as small as your eyes? I now have four: myopia, glaucoma, cataracts and OHS.
It is time to deal with the cataracts so that I can feel comfortable driving (and reading road signs) when it’s raining, at night, and when I’m out-of-town. I would be dishonest if I told you that this surgery on my left eye doesn’t cause me a little anxiety. I’ve been protective of the full (if flawed) vision it provides me.
At the same time I am a realist — my husband says that I focus too much on the negative. I don’t consider it negative to practice walking with my eyes closed (to see what it would be like to lose my vision completely) or to think about how I could still read if I couldn’t see. (I would use audiobooks or press family members into service to read to me.) I call it preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.
I am also full of gratitude for the corrected vision I’ve enjoyed and the members of science and medical community who have guided me through my problems.
I am also aware of the many, many people who have dealt with more tragic and heart-breaking health issues than my own and admire the grace and grit that most of them display. Several of them are in my own family and I imagine that some are in yours.
As for myself, as always, I look forward to seeing more clearly.