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Flashes of Light from Heaven: A Journey of Transformation (By Dr. Matt Moore)

I am sitting down to write this short story at the request of my therapist. Yes, I said at the request of my therapist. Trust me, these are words I never thought would come out of my mouth. After all, I am a very blessed individual. I wake up everyday to a family that I love, careers that make me beam with joy, and talents that allow me to provide for others and myself. There is just one challenge…I’ve met an opponent that I honesty just cannot physically defeat. My only hope is to win the mental battle. So what is this opponent and why does it challenge me in ways no others have? Stick with me as I share my story.

Two years ago, I started experiencing black floaters in my left eye. I did not really think much about this. However, a few black floaters would be the opening rounds to an emotional two-year fight. These black floaters quickly turned into flashing lights in my vision field. A trip to the ophthalmologist revealed a retinal detachment in my eye. Retinal detachments are something that cannot go untreated for long, thus it was just a couple of hours before I was in surgery. To treat a retinal detachment there are a handful of different medical procedures. The most common treatment is the usage of a gas bubble and a scleral buckle (material sewed to the back of your eye). This treatment approach has a really high success rate of fixing the detachment and restoring vision to its original state.

The procedure itself is not a horrible physical experience. I had soreness for the first week, but the pain was tolerable. On the other hand, the recovery is brutal on the psychosocial well-being of a person. It is common practice after these procedures to stay affixed in a single position for 20+ hours a day. Yes, I said 20+ hours a day. You are allowed to move to eat, to use the bathroom, to take a shower, etc. Outside of that, you have to stay in a single position so the gas bubble will push up against the retina and promote the success of the surgery. After my first procedure, I had to sit straight up for three weeks. This was not bad during the day, but sleeping straight up was a less than pleasant experience.

One month after this procedure, the recovery was complete and my vision returned to about 90% of what it was before the surgery. The problem, I kept seeing flashing lights in my eye, which can only mean one thing – the retina detached again. Back to the surgery center, another IV stuck in my arm, and a second surgery ready to begin. During this procedure, the surgeon decided to use a temporary silicone oil to fix the retina. The surgeon replaces the fluid in your eye with silicone oil, which fills the holes in the retina and provides the pressure the retina needs to heal. The recovery for this surgery required being face down for 20+ hours a day. 20+ hours looking into a pillow, hanging off the edge of the couch with an iPad below me, and building Herculean muscles in my neck.

The recovery from this procedure was about a month. The biggest challenge, silicone oil impacts your vision, as light does not pass through the eye as easily. Thus, I lost about 25% of my vision. Four months after this surgery, it was time to have the oil removed and replaced with a clear liquid that would mirror the original makeup of the eye, ideally restoring a higher quality of vision. Time to put back on the hideous hospital gown and the blue cap. The only thing pleasant about a surgery center is the warm blanket and the non-skid socks. By this point, I was accumulating a nice set of these socks.

I did not previously mention these procedures use a form of monitored sedation. In short, the anesthesiologist puts you to sleep, they put a nerve block in, and they wake you back up for the actual procedure. I was as high as people at a Willie Nelson concert, but you can still see the surgeon operating on your eye and hear all the chatter in the room. One conversation the doctor had was, “Matt, the oil is almost out and everything is looking good.” Shortly after that, “The retina just detached.” These are words you never want to hear during a surgery. My retina detached as soon as they removed the last drop of the silicone oil. The surgeon decided to try another gas bubble in the eye. They were very hesitant about putting silicone oil back in the eye as it can lead to a very dense cataract.

A new gas bubble, another 20+ hours a day being face down, and a wicked black eye followed this third surgery. By this point, you know the routines as well as I do. I will add one piece of new information here. When you have a gas bubble in your eye, you cannot see anything. The bubble prevents your vision to the outside world. Three weeks into the recovery, the gas bubble evaporated and my vision remained at 75%. It remained like this for a couple of months, which was glorious. By this point, I wanted to be done with eye surgeries. Unfortunately, my worst nightmare happened. Coaching a tennis match, the flashes returned. To this day, any flash of light in the environment around me is a trigger for trauma. Simply put – they scare the hell out of me and I start reliving this entire experience.

You know you are screwed when the surgery center nurses and anesthesiologists know you by name. Another round of monitored sedation and a new vile of silicone oil, and it was back to recovery. They were very generous after this procedure and only made me stay face down for a few days instead of the typical three weeks. For the thousands of dollars I’ve paid to save my vision, this is the least they could do. This procedure worked brilliantly for about four months. My vision remained stable, the eye pressure was under control, and all signs pointed to stability.

If you stuck with me to this point, you know good news had to be temporary. As previously mentioned, the biggest concern with the excessive use of silicone oil is the development of a dense cataract. A secondary, and not as common, side effect of silicone oil is the development of calcium deposits on the cornea. I hit the jackpot and developed both. It would be great if they were treated at the same time, but no such luck. The calcium removal had to happen first, and then they could address the cataract.

Calcium removal does not require monitored sedation; however, it probably should. They numb your eye with an ungodly amount of drops. Once the eye is numb, they drop acid in your eye to eat away at the calcium deposits. It is like CLR for the eye. Next, they take a little plunger and scrape away the calcium and flush out your eye. They finish the surgery by placing a contact Band-Aid over the cleaned area. My favorite part of the procedure, the doctor tells you the eye will experience significant pain for the next 48-72 hours. While I appreciate the honesty, I was hoping this was just a cruel joke. No such luck.

A month later, it was time to go back into the operating room for a dense cataract removal. I said a prayer before wheeling off through the double brown doors, past the refrigerator of medicines, and into the bright and freezing surgical suite. The problem…I did not respond well to the anesthesia. I had all sorts of reactions during the surgery and needed a breathing tube along with some other help. I suppose this was my form of protest. A social worker can only bite their tongue so much before they need to release their true thoughts about the experiences in their lives. I just chose to do this while unconscious.

Vision after the removal of a dense cataract is unpredictable. I would put my vision post surgery at 50%. Luckily, the recovery from a cataract removal is fairly simple and quick. As was the case with every other eye surgery I’ve experienced, the most annoying part of recovery is the endless amount of drops you must put in your eye. I know the drops by their lid cover. I’ve had blue, clear, orange, red, green, beige, white, and black. On average, you put a good 15-20 drops in your eye each day.

With the cataract gone, it was time to remove the silicone oil and to put an end to a long 24 months of eye problems. I was hopeful for a positive outcome. More than anything, I thought it was my turn to catch a break. After sliding into my seventh pair of non-skid socks, sinking into the warm blanket, and turning my head when they started the IV (I never like watching that), it was back to my second home – the operating room. The plan was to remove the oil and to replace the oil with natural fluid. SURPRISE! The retina detached during the procedure. The solution, long-term silicone oil that could stay in the eye for as long as necessary. I still have this oil in my eye today.

Herein lies the challenge; an eye can only take so much before the integrity is compromised to a point of no return. As a result of these surgeries, I’ve lost 100% of my vision, developed uncontrollable eye pressure, and my eye honestly looks like an eye you would find in a horror story villain. There is significant scaring, my entire eye is gray, and there are days where it is hard to even get my eye to open. What started two years ago with a promising surgery to repair a detachment, turned into two years of physical, psychological, and social hell. Despite the gifted hands of surgeons, careful follow-through with post surgery instructions, and all the prayers one can say, I had nothing to show for it.

I am a competitive person – fueled by personal success and defeating the opponents and challenges I have in my life. Years of competive tennis have engrained in my mind the need to outlast adversaries. This is a motto I carry with me in nearly all of my endeavors. My problem – I can’t defeat blindness. I’m not going to wake up tomorrow and see 20/20 out of my left eye. I’m not even going to wake up tomorrow and see shadows in my left eye. I am going to wake up with significant eye pain, have a headache by noon, see only black out of that eye, and live my life with monocular vision.

This is a hard reality for me to accept – let alone embrace. I feel like my body failed me. I feel restricted. I live in constant worry about what happens if something goes wrong in my right eye (starting to develop floaters). This battle has impacted my family, social, and professional lives. I’ve lost energy from the mental toll, I get irritable at moments, I can’t see anything on the left side of my body, I can’t track a tennis ball easily, and, as absurd as it might be, I do not want people seeing the physical appearance of my eye. I get tired or people asking me, “What is wrong with my eye?” I dread most conversations because people constantly ask about it. I get tired of running into things I don’t see in my peripheral. I get tired of working, coaching, and spending time with my kids not feeling like myself. The list could go on and on. However, above all else, I get tired of not living my life with the same spirit that filled my soul before God dealt me this challenge.

Thus, here I am, sitting down to write this short story at the request of my therapist. After months of treatment, I’ve found writing out my thoughts to be beneficial. I also think there are some valuable lessons I’m learning through my therapeutic journey. While this was a journey that was hard to start, it is a journey that provided me the tools to change my perspective on the challenges that lie ahead and the unknowns I could one-day face.

Lesson One: I’m learning to no longer battle my eye challenge as an adversary. Instead, using a tennis reference, I’ve come to accept it as doubles partner. I will be living with this the rest of my life and recognize the need to learn from the experience. This experience cannot define me – it must make me stronger and more humble. We hear it all the time, but it is true, things could certainly be worse.

Lesson Two: Vulnerability is not a weakness. In fact, vulnerability provided the perfect mindset to freely share my thoughts and emotions. It also provided the game plan for thinking about and reacting to the biopsychosocial implications I will face now and over the years to come.

Lesson Three: Wording matters. When I started seeking help I did not have a growth mindset. Now, I am slowly seeing a shift to a mindset that finds growth in this experience, sees new possibilities, and recognizes that these light flashes from Heaven can make me a better person in the end.

Lesson Four: Change is not synonymous with loss. In fact, change is synonymous with transformation. One eye down does not mean you are broken. It means you were put to test and did not fall apart.

Lesson Five: All of these lessons are a struggle for me at any given moment of the day. However, the one that is the hardest – living in the moment. I am at significant risk for having the same types of challenges in my right eye. Permanent blindness scares me to no end. I cannot imagine waking up and not seeing the faces of my kids, not being able to see a tennis ball go over the net, not seeing my wife’s face first thing in the morning and last thing at night, and not being able to do simple things without a struggle. These thoughts often eat away at my soul. However, I am doing a better job recognizing it and trying to live in the moment. I have plenty to be thankful about each second I live.

These are just a few of the lessons learned through my mental health journey. Lessons that I hope others can learn from too. This has truly been a battle for me. It’s tested every fiber in my body. It’s kicked my ass at several moments, taught me facts about myself I did not know, and pushed me to thoughts that I never imagined were possible. For two years, hope was constantly yanked from my grasp, I watched a world dissipate from color to pure blackness, and I experienced adaptations that did not always come easy. I chuckle when people ask if I’m cured now that I’ve sought therapy. You do not cure something like this. What you do is try to live with in a way that does not prevent you from being yourself.

I will close this story by talking a little about my next steps. On August 6th, I am scheduled for an evisceration of my left eye. In short, this is a removal of the eye. While this scares me, I find peace in knowing this is the end. No more headaches, no more nausea, no more stares from other people at my eye, and no more surgeries. Instead, I will work towards a prosthetic eye. This will undoubtedly be a tough recovery. Fortunately, a loving family, supportive friends and colleagues, a devotion to faith, and a willingness to accept mental health services surround me.

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