Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Day Before

Well, tomorrow's the day.  Tomorrow at 11:30 am, I go under the knife.  Last night it was impossible to sleep; tonight will probably be the same.  So many thoughts keep galavanting through my mind, all crowding into one another like over-stimulated aristocracy at a  Regency-era cotillion (oh, thank goodness all this has not hindered my ability to make metaphors):

  • Will my three months of nearly constant headaches come to an end (or at least lessen) tomorrow?
  • How are my students going to do on their finals without me helping them prepare?
  • Did I teach them well enough?  Oh gosh, what if I didn't?
  • What if I can't bear the pain and have to switch to general anesthetic during the operation?  What if that means Dr. Ai can't do the adjustment correctly?
  • How am I going to get dressed the morning after, when both eyes are bandaged up?
  • How will I keep from going crazy having to sit out the last weeks of the school year in order to recuperate?  Could I maybe go in and just stay on the first floor . . . . no, too many stairs just getting there.
  • But what about the students who are leaving our school?  I want to see them one last time!
  • How much more help am I going to have to ask for?
  • I hate asking for help!  Argh, I don't want to keep burdening other people!
  • I know it's going to hurt, I know it's going to hurt . . . how much?
  • What if I accidentally move during surgery, right when she's cutting?
  • Thank goodness Jane is coming to help me make it home; she's so comforting.
  • Oh man, I am going to be blind at Beijing airport!!!  How the heck is Jane going to get me through there?
  • What if it doesn't work?
I know it's going to be fine; I know I will survive.  I really am focusing on the 75% chance of success — I'm no gambler, but I do know those are good odds.  I am still keeping my sense of humor, even when I've got worries tumbling around inside.

I thoroughly appreciate the fact that my flight out of Beijing Friday night is a red eye!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

An Oasis in Beijing

I found a pleasant park nearby my hotel for escaping from Beijing crowds:

As I was taking in all this peaceful beauty, I enjoyed a few minutes of not seeing double before my eyes started acting up again.  I am fighting to be brave and to only focus on the positive possibilities, but for a few minutes I couldn't help but contemplate what will happen if the surgery is unsuccessful.  How long would I have left of being able to use two eyes?  How would my daily life work out?  I would try to stay in China, certainly, but how much longer before I just needed too much help or couldn't be at all useful?  It was terrifying to think about it.  I need my eyes so much . . . the thought of them failing me completely and forever is a nightmare that catches in my throat.

Fortunately, I'm usually able to keep my mind on the 75% chance that I'll soon be back to seeing only one park instead of two.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Eye Saga, Day Three Point Five: "I'm Not a Klutz After All — I Just Have Miserable Eyes!"

Today might be best summarized as a "whiplash day":

After the initial meeting with the specialist, the afore-mentioned Dr. Ai, she said that surgery would be necessary on both eyes, as expected, and that this could be done on Thursday.   She did some pre-surgery measurements and then patched over my left eye for some further tests she needed to do.  I had to wait for about an hour and then return to her.  So, I began to make plans to go ahead and return to Qingdao tonight, since I would not need to be back in Beijing until Thursday . . .

. . . And then we did the other tests.  I completely and spectacularly failed the binocular vision and the 3D tests!  This was something that had not been expected — I figured I wouldn't do great at those tests, but I never imagined my eyes were that bad.  Also, my binocular and 3D vision is steadily getting worse (thus the lousy depth-perception).  This means that a little more needs to be done during the surgery, making recovery a bit longer and the procedure more painful.  I was startled by the results, but also a bit relieved in some ways:  For so long now, I have felt like I must be stupid or inept to be so clumsy all the time, and I have been driven nearly mad trying to establish why I get so many headaches, migraines, and eye aches.  I am relieved to at least have answers about all of that.  It's truly amazing just how important your eyes really are!

Then Dr. Ai very gently dropped a bombshell:  There is about a 25% chance that the surgery won't work - it's really hard, apparently, to fully correct issues like this in an adult.  However, since there is still a decent chance of surgery fixing the problem, it's worth going through with.  Basically, if it doesn't work, I will keep worsening until my vision is permanently double — I would then have to start using only one eye for the rest of my life.  If I do nothing, it will definitely happen, so I have opted to take the 75% chance of saving my vision.  I know that it is possibly to have a very meaningful and rewarding life without vision or with terrible vision, but I am going to take every possible chance not to have to experience that firsthand.

So, I will remain in Beijing until Friday of next week.  On Tuesday, I will complete pre-surgery examinations and testing.  On Thursday, Lord willing, I will have the operation on both eyes.  Because I had a previous operation as a child on the easiest eye muscles, this time it will be on the two most difficult muscles of each eye, which is a little more complicated.  Furthermore, in order to have the greatest possible chance of success, I need to be awake for it, so I have agreed to do local anesthetic instead of general.  They need to be very certain with positioning my eyes and such.  Dr. Ai explained that this means I will feel a lot of pain during the surgery.  I will also need to stay in the hospital for one night.

The recovery will take a while — at least 2-3 weeks, and I will be quite uncomfortable during that time.   Also, during that time, I cannot use computers or read — that part is going to be really tough.  I need to be resting my eyes as much as possible.  I cannot wear contacts again until my retinas are fully healed, which will be about 4-5 months after surgery.  I will be more sensitive to light for a while and I have to be careful about the possibility of infection.  I will likely have red "rabbit eyes" for about 4 months as well!  That should come in handy for scaring my new students next school year . . . (^_^)

Obviously I am a bit scared about the surgery, especially since I know it will be very painful.  I am trying not to think about the possibility of it not succeeding, since that is not helpful.  I do have the comfort of a very good doctor — I took an immediate liking to Dr. Ai.  She is very intelligent, kind, compassionate, and just has a great way of being both reassuring and factual.  Also, the hospital where I am having the procedure done is, quite honestly, the nicest hospital I have ever in my life seen.  So, on the whole, I am in a reasonably okay state mentally/emotionally.  I am just going to take this whole business one day at a time and stay focused on the positives.

As the Andrews Sisters memorably sang, "You've gotta ac-cent-u-ate the positive, e-lim-i-nate the negative, latch on to the a-firm-a-rive, don't mess with Mr. In-Between."

The Eye Saga, Days Two and Three: Frankly, Boredom Is a Nice Change

Despite not leaving a forwarding address, my birthday still had no trouble locating me here in Beijing.  Yup, today starts my last year of my twenties . . . I'm not sure how I feel about that, to be honest.  Part of me feels like I'm already 40, but then there's also a part of me that is frolicsome and young and bears absolutely no resemblance to the slightly frumpy ole gal I'm starting to get glimpses of in the mirror each morning.

I was, admittedly, initially rather sad about the prospect of spending my birthday alone in Beijing with an impending surgery dangling its black crepe over the day.  I live in an environment where it is pretty easy to feel or be forgotten, so that mixed with the general migraine-created gloom that had descended over my life for the past few months.  I quite frankly was all set to skip this birthday entirely because it just didn't feel like a day worth remembering after the past few months that I've had.  But, thankfully, my natural self is starting to return little by little (especially now with a cure in sight . . . pun unintentional), and I actually feel pretty good today.  I'm not entirely alone, either.  I was awakened by a text message from one of my two dearest friends here wishing me a happy birthday, and by the time I had blearily texted back a reply, my other dearest friend texted me.  It was a nice way to wake up.  And then, at noon, I'll be joining my new friend Diana for lunch before we head off to my appointment with an eye specialist (whose name, appropriately, is pronounced Dr. "Eye" — although it's actually spelled Dr. Ai).

Yesterday's appointment went well.  I saw a Dr. Xi who was friendly and quite competent  — I liked her immediately and felt like she took my problems seriously.  She agreed with the previous diagnoses, but wanted me to see the strabismus specialist before actually having the surgery (I like the whole "measure twice, cut once" philosophy when applied to my eyes or other body parts).  I do not have glaucoma, which is a HUGE relief.  I do have something a little off about my left retina, but it's nothing worrisome.

After the appointment, I spent some time with my friend Kathryn, who had come to Beijing to join me for a day, and then from 1:00 on, I was on my own.  I elected to stay in the hotel room and do absolutely nothing, since my eyes were really bothering me (particularly after some of the eye tests I had to do).  One Beijing is bustling enough  — when you see the whole thing in double, it's beyond overwhelming.  It wound up being a very dull evening, but I honestly appreciated having a boring night.  I dealt with necessary correspondence, listened-rather-than-watched to some television programs, and decided that impending surgery justified eating some of the birthday cake Oreos that my roommate bought for me before I left Qingdao.

After the meeting with the specialist in just a few hours, I should finally have a surgery date and know exactly what is about to be done to me.  And then I'll have another pleasantly boring evening, I hope.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Eye Saga, Day One: "A Hospital by Any Other Name . . ."

As people may or may not know, over the past 2-3 months I have had a troubling increase in my migraines (actually, there has been a general increase ever since the May 2011 car accident, but the past few months have been surging out of control).  It reached the point where I truly felt like I was a poor, battered little rowboat adrift in an endless typhoon of migraines.  I eventually concluded that I must have a brain tumor and perhaps only weeks to live (migraines tend to stifle logic).  So, I reluctantly trudged to the local international clinic at the hospital, where I was subjected to more tests than my body has seen in years: MRI, blood work, you name it.  All came back normal or at least un-worrisome.  Finally, in desperation, I thought about having my eyes checked.

Previously, I had always assumed that such issues as double-vision, severe eye pain, and other vision problems were merely symptoms related to the migraines — it had not occurred to me that these might, in fact,  be the triggers.  Since the conditions with my eyes were getting worse even in the rare moments when I did not have a headache or migraine, it seemed that an examination was in order.  As the initial eye visit and a visit to the local eye hospital concluded, this was in fact the case.  Furthermore, both doctors said that surgery was necessary, along with further testing.  They were positive that I had strabismus (a condition that causes double-vision), but also concerned that I may additionally have glaucoma.

And so, "hi-ho, hi-ho, to Beijing I must go . . . "  I took time off from school and scheduled an appointment at an excellent hospital up in Beijing.  I booked a hotel.  I booked a flight.  With my magnetic attraction for trouble and disaster, what followed was perhaps quite inevitable:

The Trouble with Visually-Impaired People Booking Flights
The night before I left — around 11:00 pm to be precise — I wisely remembered to double-check my plane ticket to determine the exact time that I would need to leave home.  As I soon learned, it is perhaps not the wisest course of action for a person struggling with vision issues to book her own flights.  Yep, the flight that I thought left at 9:30 am was actually a 9:30 pm flight!  Panic!  Forehead smacking!  Lamentations!  I rushed online to change the ticket and learned another important lesson:  Orbitz sucks.  Sure, they may have great prices and convenience when initially booking, but the minute you try to change a flight . . . grief.  It could not be done online, the phone number that Orbitz provided for overseas customers did not work, and finally my only recourse was to call my father in America over a deplorable Skype connection and beg him to call Orbitz on my behalf.  I emailed him all of the details and finally, at just past midnight, the flight had successfully been changed.  Whew!

On the plane to Beijing, I enjoyed perusing two complimentary newspapers.  After fully digesting all of the highly amusing heavily-biased articles (I do love Chinese newspapers), for lack of anything further to read, I happened upon the page where horoscopes are listed.  Now, of course, I never read or regard such idiocy . . . but maybe I should have just this once.  Mine read, "When things start to get tense today, don't lose your head.  Make sure that you're keeping a cool mind.  Patiently arrange everything and handle those tasks one by one.  You are going to make it!"  (I recall thinking at the time, "Sheesh, good thing I don't believe in omens!")

I got in and found my hotel with a delightful lack of trouble.  I relaxed briefly, then asked the hotel concierge, in Chinese, which bus to take to the hospital from the hotel.  She cheerfully informed me that it was actually within short walking distance and gave me directions.  I was perhaps a bit too prideful at completely understanding the entire conversation . . .

A City Tour of Beijing's Hospital Industry
Indeed, a short walk away and exactly as directed, there was a hospital . . . but it looked too small and the name wasn't quite right.  Since my Chinese friends have graciously overloaded me with phone numbers of complete strangers to ring in case of trouble, I texted one lady whom I had at least met once before to ask what the characters were for the hospital I was supposed to go to.  She texted back, "协和医院".  Nope, that definitely did not match the name on the sign.  So, I walked a bit further, found nothing, and decided to ask for further directions.  I was still about an hour early since I had not wanted to run the risk of being late.  The nurses at the front desk of the wrong hospital were quite friendly and immediately told me that I needed to take a taxi.  Although catching a taxi in Beijing is much like snipe-hunting at times, I actually got one rather quickly.  He understood my accent and cheerfully headed off to the hospital with me.

It was a long drive.  Too long.  People had told me to book that particular hotel because of its convenient proximity to the hospital.  Now, granted, convenience is often largely in the eye of the beholder . . . but I cannot think of any definition in which a 40-minute drive across gridlocked Beijing is considered "so convenient!".  I began to worry that perhaps the driver thought that I was out sightseeing and had requested transportation to the Summer Palace or some such location.  Was my accent that bad?  Quite possibly, I told myself.  To test this theory, I oh-so-casually struck up a conversation with the driver about the quality of hospitals in Beijing.  Was this a good one?  Oh yes, quite famous, he reassured me.  Ah, good.  So we were headed for the hospital after all . . . but still a nagging doubt persisted.  Convenient distance?  Really?  Something was off . . .

We got to a ginormous conglomeration of buildings with the correct characters (协和医院) on the front of one of them.  It was a bustling, crowded, not-terribly-clean place with an overlying aura of hopelessness and a lot of people in lab-coats rushing about.  There did not seem to be any way to enter the buildings, as every single likely door was labeled “出口" (exit).  I glanced at my phone — only 20 minutes until the appointment, and they had asked me to arrive 30 minutes early to handle registration paperwork.  I quickened my step and beseeched the first non-harried-looking lab-coat wearer, in my best slightly-stressed Chinese, to please tell me where I could locate the eye clinic.  He pointed abstractedly to the left and muttered something unintelligible.  I sprinted in that direction, located another exit, and hailed another lab-coat wearer.  This lady smiled encouragingly, pointed back to the direction from which I had come, and told me to go to the third floor.  I was still outdoors at this point, so the mention of a third floor was not as helpful as the mention of where an entrance existed would have been.  The next four wearers of white lab-coats directed me to four additional directions.  It seemed that this was a hospital from which patients leave, in droves, but seldom actually enter.  Was it like the Ministry of Magic with a phone booth or toilet entrance?  I noticed, with no small amount of concern, that I was now exactly on time for my 2:30 appointment.

Fighting back some inopportune tears of frustration and also fighting to convince my eyes to see only one hospital instead of two, I battled my way through a crowd of people who seemed equally baffled by this entrance-less fortress.  My eyes alighted on a sign that bore glorious English words.  Once I managed to focus my eyes better, I saw that the sign said "International Clinic" with an arrow pointing towards a direction that none of the lab-coat wearers had sent me toward.  I raced into a quite forlorn entryway (Huzzah!  An entrance!  Who cares if it isn't a pretty one!), found a bored security guard, and begged him to direct me to the eye clinic that, frankly, I had begun to doubt the existence of.  Furthermore, I was growing increasingly uneasy that this might not be the correct hospital, despite the characters on my cellphone matching those on the front of the (I assume) main building.  The guard directed me to the third floor . . . oh, so the first lab-coat wearer was partially correct — just a bit geographically challenged.  I was now definitely late for my appointment, so I charged up the stairs with all the vigor of Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan Hill.

Ah ha!  I spied other people with non-Chinese faces.  Foreigners!  Yes, this was indeed an international clinic . . . crowded, old, quite dank, but unmistakably a place where a foreigner might seek aid.  I wasn't so sure that I wanted my eyes being operated on in this place, but it seemed preferable to limitless migraines.  Maybe it wouldn't be so bad.  After all, appearances can be deceiving.  Some of the best-tasting Chinese food bears a troublesome resemblance to a bowel movement, after all.  I could be brave and seek treatment here.  I took a deep breath and sought out the nearest nurse.  She didn't seem terribly fond of humans, but she did direct me to a different dank hallway when I asked about the eye clinic . . . sadly, there was no eye clinic down that hallway.  I did find a urology room, but felt it wouldn't quite suffice as a substitute.  Timidly I returned to Nurse Frightengale, who sternly directed me back down that same hallway.

I found a nurses' station and asked another nurse about the eye clinic.  By this time, the eye clinic was beginning to resemble Xanadu in my mind — a mythical and lovely land that cannot be found.  I was, by now, about 15 minutes late.  This nurse smiled and reassured tearful me that this was the right place . . . but she had never heard of the doctor I was supposed to be seeing.  "Isn't this 协和医院?!" I semi-shrieked.  The nurse nodded.  Something was very, very wrong.

I called the hospital (the one I had made the appointment with) and asked them, as, in retrospect, I should have from the beginning, what the name was in Chinese.  "和睦家," the very friendly and perky operator helpfully informed me.  "和睦家?!?!?  I'm at 协和医院!"  I gasped.  "Oh, that is very far away," the operator sympathetically clucked.  "You definitely will not be able to see the doctor today."

The Comfort of a Semi-Stranger
I walked about, blinded by tears, as I struggled to track down a taxi.  A bus nearly ran me down, followed by a car and then a motorcycle.  I felt very alone and utterly despondent.  I would never make it to the hospital.  I would not be able to get the surgery in a timely fashion.  I may have weeks of waiting ahead of me . . .  3:30, and I was still semi-blindly struggling along, hopelessly lost and taxi-less.  And then, my friend's friend texted me.  I texted back a terse reply about seeking out a taxi after going to the wrong hospital and she immediately called me.  After a confusing interlude of walking and scanning crowds for a Chinese face that I had only seen once before (and briefly at that), we amazingly were able to find one another.  I felt a bit like Stanley located Dr. Livingstone at last, minus the cannibals.

Diana (her English name) was deeply apologetic over the mix-up and immediately made me a fresh appointment for the next morning.  She sat me down in a KFC and held my hand while I poured out, in a mixture of English and Chinese, the tale of my tragic day.  She led me by the arm back out to the street where she located an elusive Beijing taxi.  She then located the correct hospital (just down the street in the opposite direction from the first one that I had walked to . . . about ten minutes' walk from my hotel).  Diana saw me safely to the door of my hotel and then left, with a promise to accompany me the following morning.

I love my new friend Diana.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Three Lessons Learned from a Month of Migraines

Wisdom can be gleaned from any experience; some grant it less painfully than others.  Over the past month, my overabundance of migraines have been among the less pleasant teachers of my life, but they have certainly taught me three important lessons:
  • "Stephanie, you have limitations."  I lived a very worthless life until I became a Christian and realized that the world did not revolve around me.  I brought unhappiness into the world, and I wasted chances, time, and God-given talents.  Now I cannot bear to live like that.  I worry constantly about not doing enough, about squandering chances to do good, about letting time slip away with nothing to show for it.  So, I compensate by trying to do too much.  The migraines have certainly showed me just how much can realistically be poured into one day or one person.
  • "Stephanie, you can't always be an island."  Being an introvert and being single means that I get stuck in this mode of always feeling like I have to take care of myself.  When I'm brutally honest with myself, I have to admit that sometimes it's pride that holds me back from asking for help.  Other times, I think it's fear -- fear of being judged as weak somehow, or fear that people will refuse.  As a Christian, I sometimes get stuck in this mode of leaning on myself instead of God and instead of other believers.  Migraines remind me that I can't depend on myself alone.  I need God's strength and help, and yes, I need other people, too.
  • "Stephanie, you need compassion."  When I'm at my best, zooming along, perhaps I don't always have as much compassion as I should for those who are weaker or struggling.  I like to think that I do, but the truth is that sometimes I get impatient with others.  Migraines remind me to stop and think about the many struggles that weigh down many, many other people.  They remind me, too, to stop taking for granted things like abilities.
"Passage—immediate passage! the blood burns in my veins! Away, O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?
Have we not grovell’d here long enough, eating and drinking like mere brutes?
Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough?

Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!"

~Walt Whitman, "Passage to India"