Delhi (Days 25 - 33)

3.19.2015

So I have a plan. It's a plan I've had for a little while. The plan is this: go to India, get lasers shot into my eyes, see as clearly as Johnny Nash after the rain. A $6,000 eye correction in the States costs just $600 in India, and with equally skilled specialists in both countries, it seems a thrifty decision. And so I'm off to Delhi for a new pair of eyes.

Truth be told, I want to go home. I'm still shaken from a nasty bout of E. Coli, and all I really want is to be in back in DC, with smooth roads and straight buildings and familiar faces. I'm afraid of staying in India, afraid of touching another surface or eating another meal or shaking another hand and having it all happen again. I don't think I bear it again. I love this country, but I'd love to leave it all the same, at least for now.

It's Tuesday, and I think I can get LASIK done Wednesday and fly out of Delhi Friday, a week earlier than planned. I check the cost of switching my flight: same route, same time, same day, just one week earlier. The change fee is $300 and the fare adjustment is $600, and this is just for switching one leg of my flight. It'll cost $200 more than the entire round-trip flight I'd already booked put together. I write Royal Dutch Airlines a pleading email. Please, I want to go home. I've been sick. I add some embellishment. I'm stabilized, but need to have follow-up work done in the States. The robot-human from Royal Dutch Airlines responds. "We're sorry for the inconvenience. Unfortunately you will have to pay the fare adjustment. Thank you for flying Royal Dutch. I hope that helps."

It doesn't. Not at all. I table that task for once I get settled in Delhi.

***

The next morning, I head to the eye doctor. I'd taken my contacts out the night before, but my left eye is still all blurry from irritation. This is why I need the LASIK, because my left eye has decided it doesn't want to wear lenses anymore and stages a tiny mutiny whenever I put one in. I worry that my eye will be too damaged for the surgery. It is. The doctor sits me down and shines a light in my eye and moves it around a few times and exhales deeply. "Your eye is no good," she says.

Poor bedside manner, but I like her nonetheless. She's seems warm and intelligent and genuinely concerned. She's like a grandmother—and she scolds like one too.

"This eye is very bad. What did you do to this eye? Why did you let it get like this?"

I apologize, profusely. I feel ashamed. But I'm here, I explain, I'm trying to change my contact-wearing ways. "Can we still do the procedure?"

"No."

"No?" My heart sinks.

"Not today."

My cornea is fucked, she tells me in slightly more professional terms. It's scratched up like an old CD and needs some time to heal, and maybe, just maybe, it'll be okay for surgery the following week. At least that handles the flight situation, I think. I really don't want to stay in India another week, but I really want eyes that work the way they should.

She tells me she's going to scrape my cornea, and then she does. She drops a liquid in my left eye and the eye goes numb. An assistant clamps my lids from closing while the doctor takes a q-tip and gently wipes the detritus from my eyeball. The procedure takes under a minute. She rolls away from the eye station and her assistant lifts a piece of gauze and some tape. "Now the eyepatch."

I leave the eye center a few minutes later with a huge bandage over the left side of my face and zero depth perception. "You're to wear this for a day," Doctor Neera had said. "And come in tomorrow for me to remove it."

It lasts about an hour. The numbness wears off and the healing starts, and the healing hurts. I can't touch my eye or rub it or all the other things I'm not supposed to do to it with the patch on my face, which is exactly the point of the patch, and so I remove it and continue to fuck with my eye, clutching it through waves of sharp pain crashing against my cornea.

***

Wednesday is a day of fixing things. I get my cornea fixed (or begin to), then head to the bazaars to get my phone fixed. It's lovely to be in a country where it still costs less to repair something than to just throw it away and buy a replacement. For under $40, my phone is brought back to life (though it's a sorry half-life with only one motherboard—which the repairman explained to me is like having one kidney—and no vibration or LED notifications and a garbled speaker), and it feels great to have some sense of my geospatial place in the world. I use said geospatial knowledge to navigate to the same park Lisa and I had been to two weeks before, and those same q-tipwallahs are hawking their same ear cleanings. It's nice to be back.

When it gets dark, I find a good hotel in a bustling neighborhood. It's six-hundred rupees, which is a little pricey for a single person, but it has a huge bed and a comfortable headboard and tile floors and a hot shower and a big fan and it's clean and best of all, there's blue accent lighting in the ceiling that turns the windowless room into something of a blacklight party. I move in for the remaining week, and run the blacklight until the bulb burns out.

***

I head back to the eye doctor the next morning to have the eyepatch "removed." It won't really stick back to my face, so I lie that it fell off while I was sleeping. Neera nods skeptically. She checks the eye. "Much better," she says approvingly. I beam proudly. It's healing, but not yet healed, so she gives me eye drops and ointment and tells me to use them every hour until Monday—no contacts. I thank her and leave, days of unassisted myopia ahead of me.

The world is blurry at a distance, so I head to a nearby park. I walk around looking for a nice spot and I sit on a bench. The women around me begin waving in a panic. I don't really understand what they're saying, but I come to realize that I'm on the women's side of the park, that if I want to sit it must be on the men's side, which inconveniently offers no benches in the shade. I sit on the grass.

I read, I treat my eyes, I head back to the Central Park and read some more. I spend the next day writing and the day after that, hardly even leaving my room, just catching up on weeks and weeks of travel in rushed, rambling prose. My fears of staying in India subside, and I come to like the opportunity to relax in one place. I had intended to fly back to Nepal, to spend the week sitting beside Pokhara's big blue lake and staring up at the Himalaya from where the smog can't reach it, but things happen, I guess. There'll always be time for another trip to Nepal in the future; for now, I'm just fine seeing Delhi through battered eyes.

Of course, those battered eyes can't take me very far. I spend days on the same strip where my hotel sits. On my third day of healing, I step outside to see the world being rained down upon, and it feels so good I almost cry. I've gone a month without feeling the rain on my skin, not a drop of it all February, and now it's March and there's great heavy raindrops landing all around and India is a different place, a quiet place, everyone huddled inside keeping dry. I walk to the Kathmandu Cafe and take a seat by the window and spend the entire day drip-drying next to a big pot of coffee and a little keyboard.

More blue dawns, more grey dusks, and then it's Monday, five boring days of blurriness beneath my belt, and my cornea simply must be healed. I wake with vigor and get dressed and examine my eyes in the bathroom mirror. So long, friends.

***

Laser eye surgery, nowadays, is supposed to work like this: you waltz on in to the eye doctor and read some letters off a board and then sit down and stare at a little red light for twenty seconds and then close your eyes for twenty minutes and then waltz back on out of the doctor's office with 20/20 vision. No pain, no recovery, just lasers and a little touch of magic. Laser eye surgery, for me, does not work like that.

I return to Neera's office for a third time and have a seat in the lobby. Eventually I'm called in and eventually an assistant turns on a projector and has me read what I can and eventually he gets my prescription. He takes a look at my eyes up close, nods approvingly. "Much healing. Very good," he says. Neera comes in and takes a look. She's happy with the progress over the weekend, pleased to see my left cornea looking like a cornea instead of crumpled cling wrap. "Good, good," she whispers into the microscope.

"So, LASIK?" I ask expectantly.

She pulls away and looks me in my poor, disfigured eyes. "No LASIK," she says.

We talk for a bit. My corneas are doing better, but they're still a mess. My right one is scarred and my left one is "loose," and though they're good enough to get a read on, they're just too damaged to safely shoot lasers into. LASIK isn't an option ... but there is another way.

Photorefractive keratectomy, it's called. PRK. It's an old predecessor to LASIK, back before ophthalmologists had the know-how and the technology to cut corneal flaps or perform bladeless surgery. It's safe and effective, Neera assures me, but with a much longer, more painful recovery. Rather than pull down the cornea or correct vision directly through it, PRK involves taking an alcohol solution and just melting the cornea clean off, after which laser eye surgery is performed and the cornea, during the next week or so, is regrown. It isn't fun, I'm told, but it's my only option.

Medicine, man. For a quick minute I had been hit with the sinking realization that my actions had consequences, that four years of totally and inexcusably mistreating my eyes would present some sort of punishment to my future state of being. But then I learn humans can regrow corneas, and that lessons melts into the ether like the protective layer of an eyeball under PRK. I've totally and inexcusably mistreated my eyes for four years, and with the swipe of a magic (alcohol-soaked) wand, all my transgressions will be forgiven. Let's do it.

I'm sent back out to the waiting room and asked to wait for quite a while. Neera files through her other patients and closes up shop and around 2PM I'm ushered outside into her shiny silver sedan. The doctor, her assistant, and her driver all pile in, and we take off through the streets of Delhi to go see the man with the machine.

This is pretty common, actually, even in the States. Laser eye technology is expensive, so rather than buy a machine and watch it sit unused for months at a time, many eye doctors will just rent use of one from a fellow ophthalmologist. Neera's machine-renting colleague works on the other end of the city, and so the four of us drive an hour through the thick of Delhi traffic to the concrete suburbs. We arrive, we get out, we enter and take off our shoes.

It all happens very quickly from there. I'm led into a room where the best-smelling-human-I've-ever-met drops a little numbing liquid into each eye. She waits a minute or two, checks to ensure my eyes are sufficiently numb, and then guides me into the operating room, a simple little corner office with overhead lights and a bulky box of a bed in the middle. I'm told to lie down at the foot of the bed and shimmy up toward the head of it. It feels a bit like an MRI machine. Overhead a red light seems to dance to a silent rhythm. 

Neera appears inches above my face. She's wearing a surgical mask and talks softly through it's thin fabric. "Okay, we're ready to begin the procedure. Just stay calm."

Easier said than done. An assistant places a cold steel clamp on my left eyelid and it's forced wide open; meanwhile Neera dips something into something else and brings it to my eye. She brushes across it a few times, and everything frosts. My cornea is no more. I begin to hyperventilate, quick shallow breaths of panic, recognizing that it's too late to turn back and hoping that I didn't make an awful, awful mistake. Sure, my eyes weren't the best, but at least they worked.

She mops up the remnants of my left cornea and instructs me to stare directly at the red light above me. I watch it percolate. "Oh, and don't mind the smell," she adds, "it's normal."

I'm about to say that I don't smell a thing when it finds its way into my nostrils—the smell of burning eyeball. The machine hums as destructive light fires into my windows to the world, and its cold, hollow grinding is just enough to drown out how heavy I'm breathing. I'm afraid—afraid of what it's doing, afraid of accidentally looking away, afraid that I'll never seen again—and I do my best to rationalize and remember just how safe the procedure is. It is, indeed, very safe.

And quick. Though it feels like hours, it's less than a minute before my left eye is done and the whole thing starts again for the other lens. Raze corneas, fire lasers, at ease. Neera clicks off the machine and slips two clean contact lenses over my irises—"bandages" to protect my exposed eyes for the next few days—and then I'm pulled from the bed and led right back into the waiting room. I open my eyes. I can see!

Perfectly, in fact. I look around and it's a clean, clear world: sharp edges, tiny details, words springing to life on pamphlets across the room. It's the most beautiful place, this dimly-lit, linoleum-floored waiting room, and I breathe a deep sigh of relief that it's all going to work out.

But it's not over yet. I know that it won't last, this perfect vision, that it's just a teaser of what's to come after a week or so of rough recovery. Before Neera even emerges from her scrubs a few minutes later, my eyes are already beginning to fog, and by the time I'm put in a tuk-tuk outside with directions back to my hotel, the world has become a teary blur. I blink profusely behind the dark lenses of my sunglasses and Delhi swims by like I'm underwater.

Time is precious. I stumble out of the cab and rush into the first pharmacy I can find to pick up the prescribed painkillers, eye drops, and ointments. I trot quickly through the alley and climb the stairs of my hotel two at a time and hurry into my room. I take a quick look in the mirror—my eyes look enormous, like an anime character—and I douse them in a cocktail of drops and gels before shutting them tight, popping a painkiller, and collapsing onto the bed.

Minutes later, the pain begins.

***

It lasts for days. Like pieces of glass under my eyelids, little bits of dirt and sand and stone that I'm not allowed to touch. I can't flush my eyes, I can't overuse my drops, I can't do anything but lie in bed and moan and writhe as my corneas do the slow, tedious work of rebirthing themselves. Sometimes my eyes hurt too much to close and sometimes they hurt too much to open, and most times they just hurt no matter what I'm doing with them. I sleep a lot, and take too many painkillers, and order big meals from room service that I accept hastily at the door, lights off and sunglasses on. I listen to podcasts, and when the podcasts run out I fumble helplessly at the screen of my phone, unable to see well enough to download another.

On Wednesday I try going for a walk. I'm restless, and there's so much of Delhi I want to see, but of course I can't actually see any of it. I walk eight miles with my head down and eyes shielded from the light, but still it hurts and still my eyes tear and all along the way I feel the compelling yet unrealized urge to sneeze—like that moment when you walk out of a dark movie theater into the bright sun, but skipping on a record, over and over and over. I stroll through the Lodi Gardens and am vaguely aware of beautiful Mughal tombs in front of me, but I don't dare look up at them.

It's shocking how a small pinprick in the eye can so drastically change one's mood, and I spend the days after the surgery exceedingly annoyed and irritated and embarrassed, strangely ashamed of my tear-filled, swollen eyes and octogenarian sight. It's not until Thursday that the pain really subsides, until I can actually look around and understand what I'm seeing. It's my last day in Delhi and I hope to, unlike the eight days before it, see something of interest.

But first I return to Neera's to get those bandages removed. The doctor takes a look and she nods approvingly. She passes me off to an assistant who is to remove the protective contacts, and he sterilizes his hands with a thick alcohol solution. He rinses them briefly, shakes little droplets onto the floor, and nears my chair reeking of antiseptic. "Hold still," he says.

I can smell the alcohol on his hands. I know he's trying to keep things sterile, but as his fingernails dig into my lower eyelid and his fingers pinch roughly at my eyeball and the solution leaves his skin and drips tenderly onto the surface of my fresh, healing cornea, I wince in pain and pull away and mutter angrily. I grab my eye, now naked to the world, and shut it tightly as tears well up inside its lids, as bits of my cornea dissolve for a third time this week. I glare up at him, and he shrugs sheepishly.

His hands dry a little and the right eye goes more smoothly. Before I leave the staff asks if they can record a short testimonial, a video review of the Neera Eye Centre. I'm not exactly feeling up to an interview, but I recognize how important a gora's approval can be to an Indian hospital. They sit me down and point a camera at my face and wink. I begin speaking—an honest, sincere thank you to Neera and her assistants—and all the while a steady torrent of tears streams down the left side of my face. "The procedure went just as expected," I say as my left eye cries for help. "Recovery is going along well," I add, lids fluttering spasmodically.

***

I had a full itinerary planned for my last day in India—forts and palaces and tombs and more—but I don't even make it halfway to my first stop before sitting down on the side of the road and and letting the runoff of my left eye make salty puddles on the hot concrete. I press the sunglasses deeper into my face and shut my eyes and breathe deeply. A tout comes over to sell me something—an SD card, water, bus tickets, whatever he has in his bag—and I shake my head hastily. He squats down next to me, boasts about the card's 32GB capacity. Tells me I simply need it. "No, no," I whisper, face all contorted in pain. But still he persists. I shoo him away and he wags the plastic packaging just as fervently as before and I stand up and bellow "Challo!" and storm away. I seek refuge on the other side of the Red Fort's ticket counter.

The Fort is calm and pretty and blurry, its British buildings and big smudges under a white sky. I find a shady patch under a tree and rest my head on my pack, eyes closed. I spend most of the day like this, just healing, and around late afternoon I finally gather the strength and sight to continue on. I grab a tuk-tuk to Southern Delhi, get to the entrance of a monument, and the aching eyes fog up once again, like hot breath on a cold mirror. And then the pain returns, like someone punching the mirror and stabbing my retinas with its jagged shards.

This is no way to see a city. I hail another cab. "Where?" the driver says. "Airport," I reply. It's not how I pictured it, not the way I would've liked to go, and probably a good ten hours early too, but it's time.

I go home.

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