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Miracle in the eye of the beholder

Losing the full use of my left eye tested my faith until the day of my last operation.

By Willem Hart

Originally published in the Globe and Mail, 13 September 2005

As a student of Christian day schools, I was steeped in the tea of Christian doctrine and I believed in miracles.

                       I believed in Moses and the burning bush; in the Israelites walking through the Red Sea on dry ground; in the virgin birth; in angels as messengers from God; in the coming to earth of God in the form of Jesus.

                       Those beliefs were tested in the late fifties when I lost the effective use of my left eye. I damaged it one morning by rubbing too hard to expel the residue of sleep. As an indigent graphic arts student at the Ontario College of Art.

                       Reality tempered my beliefs. Does water flow from a rock? Can water really be turned into wine at a moment’s notice? Can the lame walk and can the blind see?

                       Finally, after graduation, and the start of my career as a graphic designer, did I feel confident enough to approach an ophthalmologist about the possibilities of an operation.

   His prognosis was not good, however. He gave me a 70/30 chance of failure. That was not good enough, and I lived with my disability for another decade.

                       Those who knew of my monocular vision asked me if that was not an impediment for a visual artist. My optimistic answer was always, “Well, no, I work on a flat piece of paper and it may even be an advantage.”

                       In spite of my disability a considerable number of graphic awards will attest to the fact that I enjoyed a rewarding career as a graphic designer. I started in graphic design studios, joined an advertising agency and finally settled on a career in editorial design at Maclean Hunter. My last job as an “employee” was as Associate Art Director at Chatelaine magazine.

                       Since 1967 I have been self-employed as a free-lance designer for major corporations, banks and publishers.

                       In the mean time I also pursued my passion for visual expression in fabric art, jewelry, painting, drawing, and sculpture. Monocular vision was never a bar to visual expression. But something was missing.  

                       In the early seventies my GP referred me to another, younger, specialist whose prognosis – 80/20 for success – was much better and I decided to take the jump.

                       The operation, followed by an eight-day stay in the hospital, was a complete success and the graft of a new cornea took. However, it left me with extreme astigmatism and required the use of a hard, gas-permeable contact lens to sort of see with that eye.

                       And I could not countenance the hard contact lens and never really took full advantage of it.

                       The last memory I have of 3-D vision is in the early seventies when my wife and I attended a concert by the Toronto Symphony at Massey Hall. I decided to endure discomfort and wear the lens. Wow, how round and deep that space was. I can still remember it, but it is my last memory of 3-D vision.

                       In the late 1990s my corneal graft failed me completely by showing signs of rejection. How something that had been a part of my body for 25 years could reject is a mystery to me.

                       Through friends I was made aware of another eminent ophthalmologist who was willing to see me. She gave me an immediate date for corrective surgery.

                       On July 11, 2005, at 8:00 am she performed a miracle.

                       Not only did she replace the old cornea, but she also corrected a cataract condition. The whole procedure, under local anesthetic, took 90 minutes.

                       Without getting too technical, a corneal transplant involves the replacement of scarred, or clouded tissue with clear tissue and requires 24 stitches in a 7.5 mm circular graft.

                       It takes up to a year for complete healing and most of the stitches stay in the eye for the entire healing period.

                       Remarkably, in view of my eight-day stay in hospital in the early 1970s, I literally walked off the operating table and was home before noon that day.

                       About 10 years ago I got involved in teaching at Sheridan College. This has led to other teaching assignments. Today I teach in the York/Sheridan Honours Degree course in graphic design, as well as at the Ontario College of Art & Design in the Faculty of Design and in the Faculty of Liberal Studies.

                       It’s a rewarding endeavor which involves mostly the sharing of my experience with eager students.

                       I always tell them that, “I am deaf as a post and blind as a bat.” That’s only partially true. My hearing, though diminished, is adequate. But my vision was seriously compromised.

                       I am now looking forward to the day when I can tell my students that vision is not a problem.

                       Painful and uncomfortable though it currently is, I can already see more with my restored eye than I have seen in 40 years. What’s more, I believe in miracles again. They are truly in the eye of the beholder.