Sacrificing my Sight for my Son by Shiffy Friedman

Sacrificing my Sight for my Son by Shiffy Friedman

Reprinted from Ami Living Magazine
A few weeks back JewishMOM journalist Shiffy Friedman stopped by in order to interview me for Ami Living Magazine…I liked Shiffy right away. She’s a lively, curious, and thoroughly charming person. And I also was impressed to see how devoted Shiffy was to and how clearly head over heels in love she is with her baby, Yossi.

And then a week later, I received this article from Shiffy. And I was shocked to read about the medical ordeal Shiffy endured during her pregnancy with Yossi. This article reminded me how much we moms complain about our pregnancy symptoms– the nausea and the varicose veins and the heartburn. And here, this very young mother chose her first pregnancy over the sight in her right eye. Incredible. IMHO, they should add a line to Eshet Chayil just for Shiffy Friedman.

Seeing Stars

One Friday night last winter, I sat on the couch and read. I can’t recall what I read, but I do remember what I saw. Suddenly, the words in front of me took on a life of their own. They started to dance, waltz-like, holding hands with large black butterflies. I was seeing something I had never seen before. The visual distortion I was watching was very real, but I knew that the book I was reading was as inanimate as they come. If there was ever a time for which the expression “I was seeing stars” could be used in all accuracy, it was then.

My immediate reaction? I was in the first trimester of my first pregnancy, so of course I immediately turned to the glossaries of my pregnancy books. (Who knows them better than a first-time mom?) My self-diagnosis was bleak; I was either suffering from gestative diabetes or high blood pressure, which would mean that I’d have to lie in bed until I was ready to deliver my baby. (How would I get to America from my home in Israel? I couldn’t imagine delivering my firstborn so many miles away from my family.)

My husband wasn’t surprised to find me in bed when he returned from shul. All that day I had felt more sick than usual, and he understood that the continuous retching and vomiting had wrung the strength out of me. Before he had a chance to speak, I already shared with him my condition, fears, and diagnosis. “Are you sure about this?” he kept on asking.

“Certainly,” I answered, wishing I could say otherwise.

From Doctor to Doctor

First thing on Sunday morning, I went to see my obstetrician (whose name I will not mention for reasons you will soon understand). After a short check-up, during which my mind was racing in all directions but still could not catch up with my heart, she verified the unexpected: this was not a pregnancy-related issue. Mmmm. So what was I to do next? I knew for a fact that the cobwebs and double vision I was seeing were not just a figment of my overactive imagination. Yes, I did spend hours upon hours on the couch and under the covers; but as far as I knew, I still hadn’t gone crazy.

“I’d advise you to see an ophthalmologist,” she said in business-like fashion as she led me to the door.

So several hours later, I was at the ophthalmologist’s office, staring into the microscope as he examined my eye. The right eye, he confirmed, was definitely not all right. It seemed to me as if he had never seen such a case in his practice.

“You should be heading to the emergency room right now! There’s a retinal hemorrhage in your right eye that must be treated immediately.”
Wow. For this I was not prepared. Lying in my own bed for seven months, yes; but being hospitalized for emergency surgery? And so far from my family? No.

The frantic ophthalmologist handed me a prescription for the emergency room (that’s how it works in Israel) and reiterated how vital it was for me to be treated immediately.

As I rushed home, nauseous and overwhelmed, I could not think. It didn’t make sense to me. The cause for this condition was beyond me. Who’d ever heard of a retinal hemorrhage? Eye problems were not among the conditions of a young mother-to-be, yet the ophthalmologist had just informed me that my eyesight was at risk.

A sense of idealism overtook me as I turned the key to my apartment. I wouldn’t call my husband right now. I wouldn’t interrupt him from his learning. In a time when everything was so disconcerting and unclear, I felt a strong sense of mission; I would be like all those women I’d heard and read about, the ones who sacrificed for Torah. But as soon as he came home and heard what I’d been told, we rushed downstairs and hailed a cab. We were on our way to Hadassa Ein Kerem, my husband’s face a pale shade of white, his lips continuously murmuring chapters of Tehillim.

When we were finally registered in the emergency room, we were advised to go to Sharei Tzedek Hospital, whose opthalmology ward specifically caters to retinal issues, and so off we went. At approximately eleven o’clock, I was finally seen by a doctor- a resident in training. She was actually English-speaking; wonderful! She stared endlessly into my eye, dilated the pupils again and again, turned the lights on, shut the lights off, moved closer and farther, and then said, “Retinal hemorrhage it is. Tomorrow morning first thing the doctor will perform surgery on your eye. This is absolutely necessary to save your eyesight.”

My reaction was bizarre. I actually began to laugh. My husband looked like the patient while I somehow found this amusing. (I’ve learned that this is my way of dealing with medical issues. They just fly over my head.) Though we had reason to believe that there was truth to what this young woman was telling us, we weren’t completely sure of her diagnosis. She was only a resident, after all; and we were talking about my eyesight, not a fractured pinky finger. We wanted a second opinion and stood up to leave.

“You can’t go home now! The doctors will operate at seven tomorrow morning and you must be here for observation from five o’clock,” the resident insisted.

Oh no! That would be impossible. As we weren’t completely confident of this young woman’s diagnosis, we asked if we could return the next morning and discuss the surgery plans then. In order to do that, she explained, we’d have to sign out at our own risk. We decided to do just that, with the guidance of a wonderful medical referral agent.

Different Doctor, Different Diagnosis

As soon as we got home, both of us tired and worn, I called my very kind NY-based ophthalmologist, who hadn’t even remembered me; that’s how infrequently I’d been in his office. According to the symptoms I described and the diagnosis I had received, he felt that it was unsafe for me to travel to NY for the surgery (my parents’ idea). The air pressure wouldn’t do my eye any good, he said. So he referred me to a retinal specialist in Israel, Dr. Steinfeld, someone whom he’d trust in my situation.

The next morning, I was sitting in Dr. Steinfeld’s office, pupils dilated once again.

His diagnosis took us by surprise. So mentally prepared were we for surgery, that my parents were waiting to hear when it was scheduled to take place so they could book their tickets accordingly. I had called my obstetrician in the interim and told her what the cause for my vision problem was. She hadn’t even remembered my issue (this was only Monday morning, less than 24 hours after I’d seen her), but that was okay. What she said when I asked her how to deal with the anesthesia, being that I was in my first trimester, made me wonder how I’d ever step foot into her office again. “Now you should be thinking about your eyesight, not the baby. The baby is not of importance now.” I thought for a moment that perhaps, in my confusion, I hadn’t called my obstetrician. It couldn’t be that a person who brings life into the world would say these words. But she did.

Dr. Steinfeld, however, informed us that surgery was not necessary to correct the problem, since the hemorrhage was in front of the retina, rather than behind it, as yesterday’s ophthalmologist and resident had thought. The blood would clear on its own and my eyesight would then return to normal. This was great news! After scheduling a follow-up appointment for four weeks later, we left the hospital in great spirits, thanking Hashem. The nightmare was behind us.

The following evening, after many hours of rest, I celebrated with some friends. I was so relieved, so happy to be freed from the shackles of the hospital walls and the uncertainty they engender.

Every morning following the saga, I’d lie in bed and cover my left eye to test for changes in the right one. I’d stare at the air conditioning box ahead of me and read the company name to see if it was any clearer than the day before. Every morning, it wasn’t. As time moved on, the cobwebs did begin to contract, but the vision in my right eye was clearly deteriorating. My center of vision was gone. I relied almost completely on my left eye, especially for reading purposes (which I engaged in quite often!). I didn’t want to share this observation with my husband; why scare him once again? Maybe I just needed to be more patient and let the burst vessels disappear gradually, as Dr. Steinfeld had suggested. I discussed this with my mother-in-law, a staunch believer in natural medicine, and she kindly sent me several remedies which, according to her practitioner, have helped many in my case of retinal hemorrhage. I religiously ingested the herbal concoctions, desperate to regain my eyesight. But when we finally returned to Dr. Steinfeld, he too saw no improvement.

“Let’s wait a bit longer,” he said.

This time, though, there was no need to schedule another appointment, as I was two weeks away from seeing a retinal specialist in New York. It would be one of my first stops upon my arrival.

Third Doctor, Third Diagnosis. Whom to Believe?

Once again, I sat with dilated pupils; this time, before Dr. David. And once again, I got a completely different diagnosis. According to Dr. David, there was a macular hole in my right eye. Imagine that! Three doctors, three diagnoses. Whom to believe? Dr. David was kind and gentle, but he alarmed me nevertheless; if his diagnosis were to be true, he said, I would be his second macular hole patient under the age of 60; his first was a 25-year-old baseball player who’d been hit in the eye by a bat. A macular hole, he explained, either occurs from a condition such as diabetes, which eats away at the center of the retina, or when the eye is subjected to trauma. Dr. David couldn’t understand how this had happened to me. “Are you sure you weren’t hit in the eye?” he asked several times. I was sure. I told him about my incessant bouts of nausea which often resulted in violent vomiting, especially on that fateful Friday, and we figured that this condition must have been the cause to my unusual circumstances.

Although Dr. David is one of the top retinal specialists in the NY area, and he was sure there was a hole in my macula, he was so nonplussed by my case that he recommended I go for a second opinion before he would operate.

Finally, Dr. Robert Feig confirmed the diagnosis. For the first time, there was a consensus in regards to my condition. It wasn’t positive, though. A macular hole requires immediate surgery; we were four months away from the day it occurred, and three months away from the tentative surgery date (following the birth and recuperation period). We’d just have to wait and see how successful the results would prove to be.

When my dear son, for whom I’d give anything in the world– including the sight of my right eye– was two months old, we dropped him off at my sister’s house and headed to the Brooklyn Eye Surgery Center on Avenue J. The vitrectomy procedure I was to undergo that morning would finally bring closure to this whole episode of retinal hemorrhage/macular hole.

The Hard Part was Over. Now for the Hard Part.

If I’ve ever in my life felt young, it was that morning. Every single one of the patients waiting for surgery was, on average, 80 years old, and they were all accompanied by an aide, 50-something daughter, or a grandchild. Only I was there with my husband– grandchildren sans their elderly garndmother?– two people who seemed to have fallen into the wrong circle. During the 45-minute vitrectomy, during which I was under local anesthesia, the vitreous gel (see sidebar) was removed to prevent it from pulling on the retina, and was replaced by a bubble containing a mixture of air and gas. The bubble acts as an internal, temporary bandage that holds the edge of the macula in place as it heals.

You may wonder how a person can keep his eye open for 45 consecutive minutes. Thanks to the technology of today’s world, (almost) everything is possible; a large round tool is placed inside the anesthetized eye, preventing it from closing throughout the procedure. I must say, it was an interesting, sort of out-of-body, experience. As I was lying on the operating table, slightly sedated, I participated in my very own surgery. Dr. Feig explained every part of the procedure to me as he was moving along. When he reached the macula with his laser tools, he shared with me the good news: since the impeding gel was one long sheet, as opposed to several small pieces, it was easier to remove and the chances for the hole closing were bigger. I listened and watched through a fuzzy distance as he literally ripped the sheet, which he called “wallpaper”, off the retina, out of my eye. Now that the gel was gone, he explained, the hole could close up.

While I was eating breakfast (I had not been permitted to eat prior to the procedure), Dr. Feig spoke to my husband and me regarding the recovery process. He reviewed what he had mentioned during one of my visits to his office: for several days following the vitrectomy, I would have to keep my head down to ensure optimal chances of recovery. Because of the hole’s location, it cannot be stitched up, so the only way for it to remain sealed is from the pressure exerted by the nitrogen bubble. By keeping my head down, the bubble would rise upward and rest on the intended area, serving as the glue. (Since there was nitrogen in my brain, a gas that is sensitive to high air pressure, I was not allowed to fly or travel to high altitudes for several weeks following the vitrectomy.)

I had assumed that the hard part was behind me, once the procedure was over, but now I realized it had just begun.

Try this for one hour –no, five minutes– and then you’ll understand: Keep your head down. Completely. Looking down is not enough. Your entire head must be facing downward, on a ninety-degree angle. Now imagine doing that for two whole weeks. This is the precise recovery position for every post-vitrectomy patient. (Once I saw who the regular patients were– mainly wheelchair-bound people– I understood why more research has not been done to make this sedentary position unnecessary.)

Suffice it to say that this is not a position of choice for an active young woman, a new mother, several weeks before Yom Tov and an impending family simcha. I had no choice, though; it was my comfort or my eyesight. So we moved in to Mom’s once again, my eye patched up like a wounded war veteran. When family and friends came to visit, I informed them beforehand that though I’d be very happy to host them, all I’d be looking at would be their shoes. (“I’ll make sure to polish them!” one friend quipped.) Sometimes, a visitor would be nice enough to bend down very low so I could catch a glimpse of her face.

The face-down position did become more manageable after my parents rented a specialized chair. By resting my face on the pillow in front of me, I did not strain my neck or back. So I sat in the chair all day, looking down at the tray beneath it. When food was placed on the tray, I’d eat it; when there was a magazine there, I’d read it. It was quite humbling to be so so helpless.

It was not an easy time for me. There were moments when I was desperate to throw my baby in the air and see him smile. Every time I lifted my head just for a mili-second, to get some air or ease my neck pain, someone was sure to shout, “Head down, Shiffy!” Though it was nice to have my needs catered to–thanks to my wonderful family– I wanted to scramble my own eggs, bathe my own child… and I wanted to sleep! I did have lots of time to say Tehillim, though, and to think and to write: to express my gratitude to Hashem that this was only temporary, that in a few days I’d be active once again, this unpleasant stage only a memory. As I listened to the world around me, without adding much, I realized how many words are better left unsaid. The face-down position did teach me a lot, after all.

I never fully recovered the sight on my right eye (after all that!) since the hole was open for too long, killing the surrounding cells, and brain cells do not reproduce. But I can’t ever thank Hashem enough for the beautiful child he’s given me (yes, Dr. –, I’d choose him over anything else in the world), and for the lessons I’ve learned from the few days that I kept my head down. On the first day that I stepped out into the world, my head up high, I smiled so much I couldn’t contain my happiness.

Ahh! To see the world. What a gift.

Shiffy Friedman is a freelance writer who currently resides in Jerusalem with her husband and baby son. Her eye for detail and love of life engender a deep gratitude to G-d, which she seeks to spread further through her writing and lectures.

Image courtesy of Flickr.com user Look into my eyes

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6 comments

  1. I can’t help thinking that if the young woman had had the initial surgery when the first physician insisted on it, the tear would have become visible during the operation and perhaps more could have been done to save her eyesight.

  2. I think this was the point of the whole article – she sacrificed her sight for her son. That first surgery was detrimental to her first trimester pregnancy.

  3. Brain cells do reproduce, new connections grow to supplement lost connections. Our brain is much more malleable than previously thought. check into recovery after strokes. I”YH you will have a complete recovery.

    • Hadassah, you are right!
      I actually visited a new specialist who informed me that there is no such thing as a dead brain cell. He advised me to redo the procedure and pray for the best. That’s what we’re doing!

  4. That was a beautiful piece. Wonderful message, and very well written. Thank you! Write more for JewishMOM, shiffy! (It’ll help you keep your head up with pride!)

    • Thank you all for your support and compliments! Women like you make the ordeal so much more manageable. It means so much to me!

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