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Through the looking glass: Doctor as patient

I’ve worn glasses since I was six, contact lenses since my teens. When I was little, I thought the Third Secret of Fatima was that people with bad eyesight would see again.

I was a medical SHO on a Glénans sailing course, when I noticed the boat masts looked wavy, not straight. That’s when I learned I’m a ‘high myope’ and could expect distortions in my vision; they happened over the years.

So when the sight in my right eye changed and I couldn’t read properly, I didn’t pay much attention. That’s the way my eyes are.

Eventually I met a retinal surgeon to consider whether removing a cataract could help. Instead I got a shock diagnosis. As well as the cataract, a hole in my macula needed immediate surgery, followed by 10 days face-down, day and night, to keep a gas bubble against the operated area.

Then, no lifting, stooping or driving for a couple of months, and difficulty reconciling mismatched eyes after.

And by the way, it may not work and the operation can cause retinal detachment.

The world became very small and still. Dogs, cats, house, car, work. I live three miles from a shop.

But it’s a case of ‘you doctor, me patient’. So on we go!

I notice my coping mechanisms. You’ll go Googling, of course? No. Even thinking about eyeballs makes me queasy. A friend says someone else had a similar job done and is perfect now. So what? ‘Someone else’ is not me. I’m a doctor. I know things can go wrong.

What about a second opinion? No! It’s tough enough to hand over my eye to a highly-skilled surgeon. Do not undermine my trust. Mulling it over afterwards, the phrase ‘suspension of disbelief’ seems appropriate.

I focus on the minimum outcome: It must be done to stop the hole getting bigger.

Six days later, I was a patient.

Behind the Victorian facade of the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital (RVEEH) in Dublin were gleaming machines I didn’t recognise, technical roles I’d never heard of and an array of highly-skilled and professional staff. It was clean and the food was good.

I barely recall the operating theatre. Thank you to my surgeon and anaesthetist!

Then a ward with eight beds. Eight! But face down and not feeling well, I was glad not to be alone. I couldn’t read. I wasn’t well enough for audio books. I dozed and listened to the kindness of staff to their patients.

I probably looked calm, but that’s just a professional trick. Inside, I was like any other patient. Being in hospital is unnerving, disorientating, and alienating. Anyone who makes it less so makes the experience easier and I believe it helps the recovery.

Every little chat made the world of being a patient more normal, whether discussing healthcare in the Philippines or mutual medical friends in Bahrain. The catering staff entertained us and made sure we each got our cup of tea just the way we like it.

Any issues? Well, it wasn’t an eye ward; there were ENT patients too. No doubt it’s efficient use of beds, but I wonder if it’s clinically efficient for me, the patient.

I was told I’d be in for three nights; after one night, I was informed I could go home. It was remarkably disconcerting. Following some debate, I stayed a second night. Then an older patient, who was unwell overnight, was discharged. I became distressed that it was my fault, that my bed was needed.

A nurse comforted me and said the real problem was the hospital wanted to close half the ward due to lack of staff. She laughed off my concern at her workload.

I’ve read that, unlike in Dublin, ‘banter and consideration’ are unknown in Berlin. I don’t ever want to be a patient in Berlin. Banter and consideration are what got me through.

From clinic staff to admissions office, cleaners and catering staff, surgeons and anaesthetists, nurses and technicians, everyone was friendly and helpful. A lot of them didn’t know I was a doctor.

Each time someone treated me as an individual, I felt great comfort.

Face-down time continued for 10 days in my sister’s house. I survived with radio, Carpool Karaoke videos on my phone, and her wonderful cooking.

Will the hole mend? Will my eye read again? Until the gas bubble goes, it’s like looking through a large raindrop. But I’m getting a little excited: Post cataract, my right eye will be back to minus three. It hasn’t been that normal since I was in primary school.

Thank you to everyone in the RVEEH.

  1. Seán Ó'Langáin on November 29, 2016 at 12:51 pm

    Great article Christine, a very insightful look into the patient journey.

  2. Pat Harrold on November 29, 2016 at 12:11 pm

    Sounds rough. Well done Christine on being so positive and upbeat.

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