"I've Never Been to Scunthorpe Before" OR The Semi-Detached Retina

dave bowman.jpg

"My God, It's Full of Stars..."

Have you ever seen the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey? If you have, you'll recognise the sub-heading and image above. If you haven’t, what's wrong with you? Go check it out, it might be on NetPrime or AmazonFlix or something.


“My God, it’s full of stars!” are the last words spoken by spaceman Dave Bowman as he enters a mysterious stargate right at the end of the movie. Anyway, the reason I start with this is because this is pretty much what I saw and how I felt one morning as I woke up in my bed on a normal work day and realised there was some strange flashy shit going on in the corner of my left eye. Unfortunately, I didn’t enter a mysterious sci-fi realm in a state of utter euphoria - instead I (miserably) had to get in the car and go to work – so not quite the same thing at all.


I thought I had a migraine and the flashing, sparkly stuff would eventually go away. It didn’t. So, two days later I went along to my local optician to get it checked out. He took one look in the back of my eye and then said in a very grave voice, “You need to go to the hospital without delay, you really should have come to see me sooner.” “But I was in a spaceship on my way to Jupiter,” I answered, then quickly retracted the statement when I remembered I hadn’t actually been in the movie.

Half an hour later I turned up at my local cottage hospital (it was a small Yorkshire town – I guess it means mini hospital?) to be met by an eye specialist who just happened to have a clinic there that day. “Yep! You have a retinal detachment and you’ll have to go to Scunthorpe and have it immediately operated on!” he said, too enthusiastically (which I thought was slightly inappropriate given the circumstances). “But I have to warn you,” he continued, (a little less enthusiastically this time) “that it’s quite severe. There’s a 70 per cent chance the operation won’t work and there’s a real possibility you will completely lose your sight in that eye.” As you can imagine, I was a little gobsmacked by this unexpected news and responded by saying the first thing that came into my head: “I’ve never been to Scunthorpe before.” He was a little confused by my strange response since it seems that most people just burst into tears. “Well,” he said, “it’s quite a nice town, but you won’t see much of it. You’ll be in hospital.” I nodded. Of course, he was right. I’d better go home and pack.


The following day I was lying in a hospital bed in Scunny (that’s what the locals call Scunthorpe). I’d been given strict instructions to lay still on my left side and not move. It’s called ‘posturing’. You have to do it after the operation too and, if I’m honest, it’s a bloody nightmare. The idea is that the position of your head, with the assistance of gravity, will help to keep the retina flat against the back of your eyeball. You can only get up to go to the loo for five minutes in every hour and you have to eat and drink in that position too. I was 21 and just about to have an operation to save my sight. I’d also been told that there was an extremely high chance I’d have another retinal detachment in my right eye in the next couple of years (which turned out to be correct) and there were lots of activities I would have to avoid from now on. Becoming a spaceman was one of them. Pity really.

The operation took three and a half hours. Fortunately, I don’t remember any of it, although I had made the mistake of asking the surgeon prior to the surgery what he was going to do to me.  Big mistake. If you’re squeamish about eyes and operations then take my advice and don’t ask. I was pretty high on the pre-med just before the op and, apparently, I asked the anaesthetist if he would remember to pick up my eyeball if they dropped it and it rolled under the operating table. “They’re not going to take your eye out,” he reassured me. I still made him promise. You can’t be too careful.


Happily, I woke to discover that both of my eyes were still in situ. I also discovered that I react badly to general anaesthetic. So, 24 hours and three buckets of sick later, I was just starting to feel better (albeit somewhat empty). I had a plastic guard with little holes in over my left eye (still don’t know what the holes were for since I couldn’t see anything out of them), and I’d managed to wedge my thick specs (remember the ‘Glasses of Doom’?) onto my nose. I was back in ‘posturing’ mode (i.e. lying completely prone on my left side) and plugged into my Sony Walkman (remember those?) since it was impossible in that position to do anything apart from listen to tapes of the Top 40 recorded off the radio (it was the 80s, we all did it.)

I was on an eye ward with six beds all occupied by much older ladies who all had glaucoma. I know this because the nurse told me so. The third night one of the elderly ladies became very disorientated and tried to get into bed with me after going for a wee. I was fast asleep so you can imagine my shock. I had to try and convince her that I wasn’t her husband Albert, nor that it was 1941. It was, of course, 1985 and we didn’t need to go down to the Anderson Shelter. Yet.

The following day I was examined by my surgeon who told me that the part of my retina that they’d stitched and lasered back together wasn’t flattening out. I’d have to have another op. I told him that if that was the case, he’d have to supply me with more buckets. He thought that was quite funny. I didn’t.  Miraculously, about a couple of hours before they took me down to surgery again, my retina decided to finally do its thing and slip back nicely into place. It meant that a second op wasn’t necessary (and they were able to take the buckets back to B&Q). But what of my sight? Well, I never got it back in the part of the retina that had become detached. This was quite a substantial quarter of the upper part of my left eye, so I had, annoyingly, to get used to regularly banging my head on anything low hanging (or low flying) that I now couldn’t see. Ironically, I was also given strict instructions not to bang my head on anything, fall over on ice, or ride a horse - ever again – since that kind of activity could cause my now precarious retinas (held together by bits of plastic – or ’segmental plombs or buckles’ if you want to get technical) to detach.


However, as I mentioned above, despite being really careful, two years later my right retina spontaneously detached (without warning or any encouragement from me) and I was back in hospital again. This time it was Leeds Royal Infirmary and nobody tried to get into bed with me during the night. Although, I did pass out on the ward the day after the op and had to have an MRI scan to make sure I hadn’t damaged my brain, since my fall had been broken by a very hard wall and a tiny nurse. Nothing’s ever simple, is it? (Oh, and in case you're wondering the brain is fine ... I think).


The upshot is though, that despite the odds not being in my favour, two amazing eye surgeons equipped with all the resources of modern 1980s science managed to save at least 70% of my sight – and it all stayed that way until the mid-90s when I was on holiday in Wales and everything suddenly turned red…