Memoir — From the November 2019 issue

Notes on a Crisis

A battle to restore my vision

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1. the surgery

In the summer of 2015, on a deserted road in northern Iraq, I took a wrong turn. The turn led me in the direction of Mosul, which was then occupied by the Islamic State, and was the last place on earth I wanted to go. But the wrong turn was also an epiphany: I knew then that I needed to get something done about my eyes. What really pushed me toward the decision to have vision-correction, though, was a conversation I had had a few years earlier with Clare Morgana Gillis, a colleague who had been ambushed and captured by soldiers loyal to Muammar Qaddafi shortly before his fall. Gillis was thrown into one of his jails for several weeks. The first thing that happened, she told me, was that her eyeglasses were lost in a struggle, leaving her vulnerable and helpless. “I was blind for weeks,” she said.

That horror story, combined with the missed road sign in Iraq, plus a degree of vanity at having to wear glasses to read an aspirin bottle, encouraged me to have laser surgery. I did not come to the decision lightly. Like many people, the notion of having anyone touch my eyes seemed creepy to me. But three of my friends had done it with no drama, and one recommended her surgeon in Paris, where I lived. I did the research: I watched YouTube videos and read magazine articles. The surgery, it seemed, rarely went wrong.

I met Dr. A. on a sunny autumn afternoon in the beginning of September, a hopeful, hectic time the French call la rentrée. Children go back to school and adults make lists of things to get done. There’s a lovely sense of mass accomplishment in Paris at this time of year, a get-your-pencils-sharpened-and-get-to-work collective ambience. I was pleased I was doing something about my health, and I had utter confidence in Dr. A. He had been doing LASIK surgery for years and was charming as well. I underwent some tests, and we agreed on a surgery date a few weeks later. There was a one-in-a-million chance that something would go wrong.

I was that one in a million.

I often try to think of pragmatic reasons for what happened next. The previous August, my brother Joseph, three years my senior, my childhood playmate and confidant, my soul mate and friend, my keeper of secrets, died tragically. He was the second one of my siblings to die within a decade. Was my body weakened by grief, and not in a state to withstand physical trauma? Perhaps I underestimated my vulnerability.

The day of the surgery, I took a cab to the Seventh Arrondissement clinic near Les Invalides where several chic Parisian ladies were also waiting. A nurse showed me a locker, gave me a dressing gown, and told me to wait for my room to be ready. I was lying on the table when Dr. A. walked in. After examining my eyes, he quietly asked me to meet him in the next room. The surgery, he explained, had to be halted, because my corneas were too thin to safely perform the procedure, which involved using a laser to reshape the cornea and to create a permanent flap in the cornea’s deeper layers.

An eye miniature painting by Joseph Sacco © World History Archive/Alamy

Dr. A. said that he could instead perform the slightly more involved photorefractive keratectomy, or P.R.K., surgery. There would be no flap, but he would remove the outer layer of the cornea, allowing new cells to generate. P.R.K. was more painful, he said, and the recovery was slower. But, he added, for me it would be far safer than LASIK surgery.

I hastily agreed. I had prepared myself to walk out of surgery with clear vision that day—to see the indigo-blue sky and puffed white clouds even more clearly than I had seen them before. I was not in the mood for disappointment.

“Shall we proceed?” Dr. A. asked me.

“Yes,” I said. “But when you say pain, what does the pain feel like after?”

“People explain it’s like sand being thrown in your eyes,” he answered calmly. “But only while it is healing—about a week to ten days.” He advised me that I had to stay calm and rest after the surgery.

The surgery took less than ten minutes and was painless. Afterward, Dr. A. held up a piece of paper, and I could see the letters sharply and clearly. “I can’t believe it,” I said.

The pain started soon after, but it was bearable. I went home, lay on a sofa, took painkillers, and used my eye drops. Friends came and went with baskets of delicious food. Three days passed, then four, then five.

On the sixth day I took a train to Geneva to moderate a conference for the Finnish government on strategic communications against Russian trolls. How do I remember this so precisely? Because I realized something was terribly wrong when I saw the quizzical expression of the Finnish diplomat who asked me a question a few hours later. The room where I gave my presentation was in a modern glass building with many windows through which the bright autumn sun poured. After the first twenty minutes of the presentation, my head began to pound. The afternoon sunlight was so agonizing I had to put on my dark glasses, which must have looked odd to the audience. Then my vision became more and more blurry. I hurried my conclusion and rushed the Q&A session. By the time I hailed a taxi to go to the train station, I could not see out of one eye.

At Geneva’s Cornavin Station, I was eager to board the T.G.V. high-speed train to take me back home to Paris and my doctor. I found a seat, and watched the Swiss and then French countryside outside my window grow darker and darker, until it was as though a curtain had come down over my right eye.

I could see nothing out of my right eye, very little out of the left—and that was completely blurred. I was virtually blind. As the train pulled into Paris’s Gare de Lyon, I could not see well enough to find the car I had reserved. A kind stranger took my arm and guided me into a taxi. I managed to call a friend, Anna, who called my doctor. We all met in his office in the Sixteenth Arrondissement, and he gently examined my eyes. He put his fingers on my face and tilted it toward a light. I flinched at the overwhelming pain I felt as the light hit my eyes.

Dr. A. put down his instrument and said slowly, “You are going to go through the toughest battle of your life. But I promise I will be with you.”

I did not understand what he meant. “Am I going to lose my eye?” I asked.

He was silent. “I don’t know,” he answered finally.

Dr. A. called a doctor at the Quinze-Vingts National Ophthalmology Hospital, the French national hospital for the blind, and got me admitted. “Go home, pack a bag,” he said. He reassured me I was going to the best place in France for eye treatment.

Quinze-Vingts was founded in the thirteenth century by Louis IX as a hospital for knights coming back from the Crusades who had been blinded by Turks. In those days, it was located to the west of the fortress of the city of Paris, but during the reign of Louis XVI, it was relocated to the barracks of the king’s Black Musketeers (so-called because they rode black horses) on Rue de Charenton.

Anna and I rode silently in a taxi through the streets of Paris to the hospital. Wheeling my small suitcase into a crowded lobby of sick people, I remembered what my friend Kate, dying of cancer, once told me: “When you become a patient, you enter the Land of the Ill. It’s a place that ordinary people can’t understand. They are living and you are in another world.”

We filled out forms, and finally, in a side room with a dim light, a male nurse told me to sit still while he performed an eye biopsy. While he prepared his instruments, he gave me a potted history of the hospital and the blind knights, awash in gory details.

“Will this hurt?” I asked.

French medical personnel are not renowned for their bedside manner, and the nurse did not hesitate. “Yes,” he said. “It’s not easy.”

The lancing was sharp and took my breath away. When the nurse saw me wince, he said, “It’s all uphill from here.”

At the time, I thought I misunderstood his French and believed he had said, “It’s all downhill from here,” but I was wrong. I had understood him. He meant the worst lay ahead of me, on the third floor of the hospital. I had entered the Land of the Ill.

2. quinze-vingts

The hospital was in a narrow road behind the Bastille, a part of Paris that I always associated with happiness. The Opéra Bastille is nearby, as is one of my favorite cafés in which to sit and watch people. Le Marais is on the other side of Boulevard Beaumarchais, and on summer nights it is flush with people. I fell in love with my husband, Bruno, who had a flat there, in the summer of 1999. We would ride on his motorcycle through the small, ancient streets, stopping for a drink. I passed the street where we had brought my tiny son to his first doctor’s visit at three weeks of age. Where we bought his first bed. Where Bruno had bought me a necklace, a ring. Where we would go to restaurants to eat in springtime. Where I had learned how to drive in Paris.

But on that particular September afternoon, Anna and I took an elevator to the third floor of Quinze-Vingts with dread. Because I could see out of only one eye, and only partially, I walked to my room with my arms outstretched to try to feel where everything was—a bed, a table, a bathroom, where I could see a dirty towel hanging from the wall.

“There’s no television!” Anna cried. Then she caught herself. Of course there wasn’t. It was a hospital for the blind.

Anna had three small children at the time, was overworked and busy, but she sensed how terrified I was, and she settled me in in a calm, gentle way. She went back to my apartment across the river in the Sixth Arrondissement to bring me some more clothes and supplies that would comfort me: a beloved cashmere blanket and a small transistor radio that I had brought from England when I moved to France. Over the weeks I was in the hospital, she would come with food or sometimes just to hold my hand through the treatments. We would sit for hours listening to music, not saying anything.

That radio, with a small dial that changed stations, would become my lifeline for the next weeks. All my life, books had sustained me in moments of crisis, but now I could not read. I could not see the numbers on my phone to call a friend. The only thing I could do was listen to classical music to try to distract myself from the pain of the treatment.

3. the treatment

Dr. A. arrived a few hours later. He explained what would happen and introduced me to Dr. Q., a young woman in her late twenties who was an expert in corneal infections. Mine, he said, was now far worse than he had thought. The biopsy showed it was not merely a bacterial infection, which easily could have been treated, but a fungus, which was nearly impossible to treat. He told me to think of a fungal infection in a toenail and how long that took to heal. “We will have to open the cornea to let the medicine in,” he explained. It was an image I tried to banish from my mind.

“Am I going to lose my eye?” I asked Dr. Q., who had joined the conversation.

“Probably,” she said, and then added, almost cheerfully, “but you have the other one.”

Two people in my life had lost one of their eyes. One was my brother Vincent, who, when he was ten years old, sitting on the front porch of my grandfather’s house, reading a comic book, was hit with a stick. My father always said that the day the doctor told him my brother would lose his eye was the saddest day of his life. Despite having only half his vision, my brother became a successful neurologist. But protecting eyes became an obsession in my family, particularly with my mother: The admonition to “Be careful of your eyes!” rang in my ears from early childhood. “You’re going to poke out your eye! Be careful!”

Marie Colvin, my colleague at the Sunday Times of London, was the second person. She had lost her eye when a grenade was tossed at her while she was covering the war in Sri Lanka. She recovered, but the loss was a major trauma in her life, and until she was killed while reporting the war in Syriain 2012, she wore a patch over her eye. She had to learn how to navigate with her lack of peripheral vision, how to climb stairs and pour wine into a glass again.

As soon as I was settled in the hospital room, I began “treatment,” which consisted of an hourly—every hour, day and night—procedure called dosing during which a nurse would put on rubber gloves and drop an acidlike substance into my eye. It was so toxic that the nurses had to take care not to accidentally drop it on my skin, where it would burn and scar. The fungus in my eye was so stubborn, I was told, that only the acid, which was prepared in the basement of the hospital, could cure me. Sometimes the nurses would slice my cornea before pouring in the acid, to open up a hole. Even now, nearly five years later, I still cringe when I think of their hands on my skin.

The agony of the acid hitting my eye is almost indescribable. It took a good ten minutes after the dosing for my body to calm down from the shock. The nurses were silent while they administered it, then they snapped off their gloves and left me whimpering, curled up in my bed in agony. I had thirty minutes to recover before I heard the horrible squeak of the nurses’ trolley coming down the hallway to dose me again. The experience was, I was later told by the British psychotherapist Adam Phillips, akin to torture.

Worse, I could not get pain relief, because the only thing that would soothe the pain was steroids—but steroids would not help me fight the infection. I was given paracetamol, which did nothing. I would beg the nurses, beg the doctors for something to relieve the pain. They would shake their heads, not unkindly but not helpfully. I would lie awake all night, waiting for them to come back, shaking, fantasizing that I could hide under the bed. I would listen for the nearby church bells. The radio announcer would call out 3 a.m., 4 a.m., 5 a.m.—I would drift into a light sleep, to be woken by the wheels of the trolley, the sounds of the night nurse bearing my medication. I became a shell of nothing but pain. Everything I had done before in my life was erased. I existed only as skin, bones, muscle.

The nurses were overworked and underpaid, so compassion was not their priority. There was one kind male nurse who would give me a washcloth dipped in cold water after the dosing—strictly forbidden, since it diluted the acid—so that I could get some measure of relief. The rest of them barely looked at me as they snapped on their rubber gloves and prepared the potion. They did not answer questions. They dropped the acid on my eye, swabbed my skin, and left.

Dr. Q. came to see me occasionally but was enigmatic. She did not know how much longer I would be there. She did not know if my eyesight would be restored. She was a scientist, she reminded me, not a magician. I was taken to different floors, where I saw people walking with white canes, to get more tests, to see more doctors. No one knew anything.

My hospital room became my world. For the first time in my memory, I did not follow the news. I listened to Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words” or Schumann’s “Scenes from Childhood,” letting the music soothe me. I tried to control my terror. The fear I felt was greater than that in any war zone I had ever entered, any bombardment I had endured. I could not control my future, my destiny. I was going to be a blind writer. How could I support my son? How could I live?

Then something changed. The pain, the dread, the fear became a lull, a deep calm, a meditation. Once I was resigned to losing my eyesight, I relinquished control. Then I began to daydream, with a resounding clarity, about everyone I had ever known: childhood friends, lovers, husbands, colleagues, dead and living, came and sat at the edge of my bed. They talked to me. There was my much-adored father, long dead, speaking to me about courage. I remembered details from my childhood when I was sick with chicken pox along with my dead brothers. My mother as a younger woman climbing the stairs with a boiled egg on a tray for me, and dry toast. My elder brother, Richard, in his blue pajamas sitting on the edge of his bed watching Star Trek in black and white. My brother Joseph, recently dead, was scratching his face during our bout with chicken pox, when he was nine and I was seven, and wearing the same red socks and plaid bathrobe that he wore then. I saw lovers and dead boyfriends: Jonathan, who died from an aneurysm at the age of forty, telling me Irish jokes. Kurt, murdered in Sierra Leone, telling me a story of running into rebel soldiers in West Africa, laughing as he described their disorganized militia in detail.

I had many imaginary visitors. Long-buried memories were brought back to life. Things long forgotten came back to haunt me, remind me, and guide me.

4. the gift

On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Dr. A. came to see me. It touched me because I knew he was a religious man and should not have been working that day or even picking up the telephone. He told me that, according to his faith, Yom Kippur was the day when you thought about the people you had intentionally or unintentionally hurt. He was tormented to see me in pain. He said that in all his years of surgery he had studied only one previous case when this had happened. He promised me I would get better. But he could not say when I could leave the hospital, or even how much damage my eye would sustain from the infection, which was dangerously close to my retina. It was a war, he said, and we were soldiers fighting the bad guys. The horrid medicine was not my nemesis but my ammunition.

From my window, I watched late summer pass by and autumn approach. I was losing weeks of my life. Leaves on trees turned from green to red and yellow. The wind, when I opened the window, felt colder on my face. It was October when I was finally released from Quinze-Vingts.

Dr. Q. came to see me. At last, she was cheerful. She gave me a month’s supply of the acid, which I had to keep in my refrigerator at home. I could give myself the drops, she said, as long as I promised to do so. I was now down to eight doses a day, which meant that, for the first time in weeks, I could sleep.

Two months later, Dr. A. was satisfied that the infection was gone. By Christmas, my vision had returned to normal. I could read pill bottles and the newspaper without glasses. The scars on my cornea would never heal, but the infection had been successfully fought and stopped at the rim of my retina. I was not going to lose my eye. Years later, I saw an eye doctor in Manhattan who showed me the scars, still evident: “Do you know how close you came to losing sight in that eye?” she asked. “Your entire life would have been different.”

What happened to that other case, the other woman you told me about? I asked Dr. A. one day long after the danger had passed. He told me hers was a famous case. The woman also had a fungal infection on her cornea. But she had jumped out a window, so great was her pain. He did not want to tell me that story while I was going through treatment.

I do not look back on that time with any regret, because something remarkable happened to me during those weeks spent in Quinze-Vingts listening to my radio. Perhaps it was the visitations with the dead, perhaps it was the severity of the pain that pushed me into another world, perhaps it was the fact that I was given a gift. My eyesight was taken from me, threatened to never return, but was then restored.

I did not leave the hospital the same person. Something inside me had changed irrevocably. I never again took anything—not the wan sunlight of Paris in autumn, nor the sight of children walking with their backpacks to school, nor the Métro ticket in my hand that I could read—for granted.

Reversals of fortune. It had happened to me another time in my life. During the war in Kosovo, I was taken hostage by drunken Serbian paramilitary soldiers on a lonely mountain road. They marched me and two of my colleagues into a small pine forest. They made us kneel and fired their guns over our heads. They told us to say our prayers, that they were going to kill us. But then, for reasons I will never know, they released us, stole our money and equipment, and sent us out into the darkness. A refugee who was fleeing the violence in Kosovo found me later, dazed, wandering in the village at the foot of the mountain.

“God was with you,” he told me. “When the Serbs take you off to be killed, they do not change their mind.”

But the Serbs had changed their mind. In the hospital, the same thing had happened to me. I was set on a course, but fate intervened. My destiny changed. I had my vision back.

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is a 2019 Guggenheim Fellow and the author of The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria.

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