Like hundreds of thousands of other Floridians this year, I've just had cataract surgery. As a result, I now realize that our state's real claim to fame may not be white beaches, the Magic Kingdom or crazy voting glitches. Instead, we've become the Henry Ford of modern medicine, turning the ultimate baby boomer operation into an assembly-line miracle of high-tech, high-touch mass production. And nowhere is that miracle being executed more flawlessly or more frequently than right here in Sarasota.
If they live long enough, half of all people will develop cataracts—more in Florida, where we're exposed to so much sunlight. Cataracts form when the aging protein in the lens of your eye starts to clump together into cloudy areas. Left untreated, they're a leading cause of blindness, which is why people started treating them as long ago as 800 B.C., way before the invention of anesthesia, when a persuasive physician in India managed to convince patients to allow him to insert a needle into their eyes and try to push the cloudy matter aside.
I would not have been one of those patients. In fact, a few years ago, when my doctor told me that I was developing cataracts and that replacing my cloudy lenses with artificial ones could improve my vision, I dismissed the idea. A) Didn't he understand that I was much too young for cataracts? And B) as someone who spends almost every waking moment reading a computer screen or printed page, I would never, ever let anyone insert anything, and that includes a pulsing laser beam, into my precious eyes.
True, those eyes were not exactly perfect. Since childhood, I'd been so near-sighted that I could barely read the big E on the eye chart without glasses. But in nature's compensatory way, I was blessed with excellent close-up vision. I've never had to wear reading glasses and was the go-to person in any group of baby boomers for deciphering a menu or pill bottle. I wore glasses to drive or watch TV, but otherwise I had happily adjusted to a little world of perfect clarity surrounded by a big, beautiful blur.
It's difficult for my assertive, practical-minded friends to understand, but being near-sighted has its comforts—and, I believe, may even shape personality. Although I was always getting lost and had trouble recognizing people even a few feet away, I loved immersing myself in books and my own imagination. I think living in that blur also led to my lifelong tendency to deny unpleasant realities until they hit me in the face. It's easy to imagine a rose-colored world if you can't see the harsh details—as any myopic, middle-aged woman who puts on her glasses and takes a final look in the mirror before a party can tell you.
But near-sightedness is one thing. Near blindness is another. Last month, one of my cataracts got worse. Suddenly, I could barely see, even with glasses. The world started to look like a faded, jumpy newsreel, making me queasy as well as disoriented. It was time for surgery.
Our region has a number of excellent cataract centers. I chose the largest, which performs 6,000 procedures a year and employs an army of medical professionals. One nurse told me he came all the way from Arizona to work here because it's considered one of the best facilities in the country. Patients follow a similar path to Sarasota; it's not uncommon for people to fly in from other states and even countries for cataract surgery in our city.
The reason, of course, is our critical mass of aging boomers and retirees, a never-ending source of fresh cataracts—and revenues. All day long they stream into our cataract surgical centers, and local doctors have perfected the medical care and customer service they deliver. No detail is overlooked, from the "patient care counselors" who (in my case, at least) upsell you to the top-of-the line lenses that insurance doesn't cover to the fresh-baked cookie you'll get after surgery.
From arrival to departure, the entire process takes less than two hours. Your eyes will be scrutinized and invaded by millions of dollars' worth of machinery, but you'll also feel the human touch. You start out in a waiting room, where a nurse walks around putting numbing drops in everyone's eyes. After about 15 minutes, they call you into the surgical area, where you lie down and get your anesthesia through an IV. A few minutes later, you walk—supported, because you're a little woozy from the drug—into a room where a doctor uses a laser to destroy your old lens. Then you're wheeled into the operating room, where, slightly sedated but still awake, you're placed under a big, noisy machine, your numbed eye held wide open by instruments, staring at a bright, flashing light while the surgeon puts in the new lens. The experience is painless, but intense, and I was glad to feel the nurse's warm hand squeezing mine. The procedure takes about 10 minutes. Then you take a seat in a recovery area, where you get your cookie and something to drink. A few minutes later, you're on your way home—and someone else is checking in for his turn on the assembly line.
I was back at work the next day, and like the vast majority of patients, never had a single problem. And yes, I can see—everything, from the exquisite individual, bright-green leaves on the oak tree outside my window to the words I'm now typing on the computer screen.
And do I miss that comforting haze that used to hide me from the world? Not so much. Laugh all you want, but I swear I'm starting to see a personality change. Last week, I found my way back to my seat in a big concert hall without a moment's panic. And next time we meet, don't be surprised if instead of staring blankly past you, I greet you and heartily shake your hand.