A Blind Man Sees Red, White And Blue Again

American flag i i

This Fourth of July, Stephen Kuusisto will be able to see red, white and blue for the first time in 10 years. iStockphoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption iStockphoto.com
American flag

This Fourth of July, Stephen Kuusisto will be able to see red, white and blue for the first time in 10 years.

iStockphoto.com
Stephen Kuusisto i i

Kuusisto, a blind poet and writer, teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa. Kuusisto also works to promote disability awareness. His blog is at www.planet-of-the-blind.com. Courtesy of Stephen Kuusisto hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Stephen Kuusisto
Stephen Kuusisto

Kuusisto, a blind poet and writer, teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa. Kuusisto also works to promote disability awareness. His blog is at www.planet-of-the-blind.com.

Courtesy of Stephen Kuusisto

Groucho Marx once said, "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read."

For the past decade, I have been inside the dog.

I was born legally blind in the 1950s. But some 10 years ago, I developed cataracts. Almost overnight I was transformed from being able to spot things up close to what ophthalmologists describe as seeing "hand motion only." I couldn't count fingers. My world was devoid of light. Color was more and more a distant memory.

In my case, having cataract surgery wasn't a slam-dunk. My retinas are scarred and underdeveloped from being born prematurely, and ophthalmologists around the country told me there were greater risks operating on my eyes. In an age when having cataract surgery is as common as having one's teeth cleaned, I learned that I was the rare exception: Doctors told me to hold off.

Then I made a career change. Long a professor of creative writing back east, I returned two years ago to my alma mater, the University of Iowa, to teach literary nonfiction and also to work in the university's famous College of Ophthalmology as a faculty member teaching disability studies. And, boy, did I meet eye doctors, two in particular: Dr. Edwin Stone, one of the nation's foremost research ophthalmologists; and Dr. Tom Oetting, a remarkable surgeon. Both told me they could get me some of my vision back.

I decided, as the Brits would say, to give it a go. If it worked, then I might see some Iowa sunsets; if it didn't, I was no worse off.

And so a month ago, with strong encouragement, I underwent cataract surgery. Oetting explained that it would be a complicated procedure. They would use general anesthesia in order to inject a freezing agent behind my eye. They'd remove the cataract with scalpels rather than by liquefying it. There would be greater technicalities than usual.

I pulled hair from my head and talked to myself. "What if the retina detaches and I get an infection? What if they have to enucleate the eye? What if it hurts forever?"

On May 22, I went forward. We did the left eye. Our hope was to return me to legal blindness.

Post-surgery, my doctor told me that the cataract was one of the worst he'd ever removed. It looked like a black jelly bean all curled up in its little plastic container. My wife, Connie, couldn't bear to look at it

The bandage came off the next day. Although I was still legally blind, I saw my neighbor waving a plastic wand for his 4-year-old daughter. I watched as she tried to catch soap bubbles in the Iowa wind.

Suddenly I could see the hues of the world: the blues and reds, oranges and yellows were back. My shirts had colors — who knew? The hair on my guide dog, Nira, a yellow Lab, had rich swirls of honey going to toffee, to cream. My wife was skinnier than she claimed to be, and she had the nicest smile. There were ducks in my yard. Sure, I was seeing these things imprecisely, but they were displaying themselves. My brain was awash with gypsy colors and midnight sunlight.

Early this morning, there was a red-winged blackbird beside the lilacs. I could tell he was there. He was dancing like Jimmy Durante.

Related NPR Stories

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.