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I Finally Agreed to Undergo Cataract Surgery. Here's What Happened

I've experienced something akin to a rebirth.

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Derek Abella
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For those of us in the last trimester of our lives, vision loss and hearing loss are so common we not only expect this, but we accept the losses as a “given” of aging. For many reluctant seniors, it’s also a big red flag that confirms “I am getting old," so they delay dealing with these sensory deficits until they can’t anymore.

This is despite the fact that treatment has become more tech-friendly, accessible and less costly. In fact, at least one category of vision loss does more than restore clarity of vision. According to a 2022 study reported in JAMA Internal Medicine, removing cataracts was “significantly associated with a 30 percent lower risk of dementia development.”

The word “cataract” has two meanings: A cataract is a cascading waterfall, a dramatic effect of nature and also the lens of the human eye. It can become cloudy through use and as you age. I could feel it. I couldn’t see the stain on my sweater nor my students’ expressions through the fogged-up lenses of my eyes.

Surgery to remove the cloudy lens and replace it with an artificial one is the most prevalent of all surgical procedures in the United States, according to the National Eye Institute (a division of the National Institutes of Health). The total is over 3.7 million Americans in a year; and by age 80, most Americans either have cataracts or have had the surgery.

Before artificial lens implantation, thick glasses were needed to replace the lenses that had been removed. And, when implantation was in its earlier stages, aftercare included hospitalization, and having to remain immobile, even sleeping with sandbags to position your head so the new lens would not be dislodged.

I found the procedure to be painless and quick (taking about 20 minutes), and according to research by the Cleveland Clinic, 97 percent of these repairs are successful — and I’m part of that statistic. The worst part I experienced was the copious amount of pre-op and post-op eye drops that are required.

My ophthalmologist, Dr. Mohsin Cheema, who has been performing cataract surgeries for 20 years, attributes the improvement in the procedure to the refinement of the machine used to break up the cloudy cataract.

“It results in far less trauma to the eye,” he says, adding that even rare cases of inflammation are reduced due to an antibiotic now administered during surgery.

I admit I was in that category of denial, putting off addressing my cataracts, even beyond my students’ faces appearing blurry, until I could no longer drive at night because lights coming at me were glaring and road signs were as if in a fog.

I arrived at the ambulatory surgical facility early that May morning. Pre-op was in a comfortable chair, as my right eye, the one to be operated on, was dilated and anesthetized, a process that took about half an hour. I was then walked into the operating room, and helped onto the table, covered with a blanket to my chest.

Dr. Cheema showed me and intense fuchsia, blue and white lights, and told me to focus on it. He stressed that patients are awake during cataract surgery in order to respond to important instructions like this.

My face, except my right eye, was covered with a plastic surgical tarp. My eye was cleansed several times and then flooded with a numbing ointment. I felt nothing but the pushing and pulling as the doctor set to work breaking up the cataract.

This technology is called phacoemulsification in which the cloudy lens is ultrasonically emulsified and then extracted through a small incision.

The machine which is part of this cataract demolition crew beeped and clanged like a pinball machine. I focused on the beautiful colored lights to distract myself from thinking about what was happening to my eyeball.

I even asked the doctor, in the moment, to give me a brief history of cataract surgery. He said they used to call it “couching,” and in ancient Egypt, they treated a cataract by taking a needle and poking and pushing it down and out of the way but did not remove it. (Happy I’m in the here and now!)

In mere minutes, my eye was ready for the new lens, and immediately it was implanted, the surgery was over, and I was sitting on the edge of the table getting my bearings. The doctor slipped a pair of dark sunglasses onto my face.

The post-op regimen includes sunglasses, a clear patch to cover the eye and sleep for a few days (mainly to make sure you don’t rub your eye in your sleep), and a lot of eyedrops, to prevent infection and promote healing.

Still, the stigma of “old people’s” ailments persists. This is at the root of neglecting to attend to essential medical treatments that arise as we age, which are more effective than ever — for vision, hearing, knees, hips — the whole package. Unlike previous generations, with medical advances, we can drive safely and walk swiftly.

At 60 and 70 and 80 and beyond, we have the ability to live fully — and to see the light, in all aspects of our lives.

My cataract surgery was like a rebirth. And weeks later, the greenery of nature seemed almost iridescent. I pushed through the tunnel of blurry-eyed vision, and a fear of aging, and then made an appointment to have the other eye done.

Have any of you had cataract surgery? How did it go? Let us know in the comments below.

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