For some years, whenever I went to see my opticians about new glasses, they would say, having stared into the vacuum of my eyes, “You’ve got cataracts. One day you’ll need to have them out. We’ll tell you when.”
Then about a year ago, they said, “The time has come.”
They wrote to my GP, with all the relevant data. He said that I had to see an expert. The NHS are obsessed with sending you to your closest hospital. I said that I’d rather go to a good hospital, I’d mastered the secrets of Tube travel, but they said, ‘No, it’s Newham for you. ’
An appointment materialised: three months’ time.
The expert asked me to be seated. He ignored the better half, who had come too, but she sat anyway. He set his iPhone visibly on the desk. The alarm was set for ten minutes. That was my lot. He poked cursorily at my eyes.
“Absolutely nothing wrong,” he said.
I asked how this could be reconciled with my opticians’ letter.
“The one my GP sent you.”
“Oh, was there a letter? We must have lost it. Besides, we go to opticians to buy spectacles, not to learn about our eyes.”
The better half said, “But he can’t use the computer for long, which he needs to do for his work, and he can’t drive.”
“At his age he shouldn’t be working. And why does he need to drive if he’s got you?”
He got us out in seven minutes.
Curiously, there was a story on the television news that night, that ophthalmologists in the NHS had been told to authorise far fewer cataract operations, in order to save money.
I wrote a letter of complaint to Newham Hospital. I’m sure that they’re going to reply, but so far they haven’t got round to it.
I persuaded my GP to send me to the Western Eye Hospital, which is in the Marylebone Road, near Paddington. The optician had said that they were the best.
“It’s very far,” he said. “I’m not sure that I should.”
“Fortunately,” I said, “it’s just round the corner from my office.”
“Oh, that’s all right then.”
This time the wait for the appointment was only two and a half months. I had various tests from various people and they took some photographs. Then I saw the expert. Yes, he said, I had cataracts and they should take them out. He sent me off for some more tests and a chat with the appointments woman, who said, ‘Can you do Monday? We have a cancellation.’
What nice people they are at the Western Eye Hospital. The receptionist pretended to mistake me for Robbie Williams and there was much cackling. She took my blood pressure.
“They won’t do you unless you get that down.”
“How can I do that? I’m terrified.”
I met the surgeon. He also took my blood pressure, and sighed.
“See what you can do about that,” he said. “Any questions?”
“Yes,” I said. “How do you get the anaesthetic in?”
“Drops,” he said. “See you later.”
An hour or so passed. Quite a sense of solidarity grew in the waiting room. One by one people went off into the endgame. First they put a big cross in magic marker over the eye in question so that they don’t dig stuff out of the wrong one. Then they give you a back-to-front gown. Then they take your blood pressure again. Then they take you away. Then you emerge, smiling bravely, heavily eye-patched and enquiring about the Addison Lee transport home ordered before it all started.
I was last of all. The blood pressure was worse than ever, but in I went.
The anaesthetist was lovely. She told me that when it was all over I was entitled to a cup of tea and a sandwich, and she gave me lots of drops. You don’t feel your eye getting anaesthetised, but you do get a bit woozy. I lay on the table and listened to the nurses’ banter. They put a thing on my finger to register my heartbeat, which could be heard on a monitor throughout, getting higher and faster during the exciting bits. When the operation started they turned on Classic FM. It was Jan Garbarek, with his tenor saxophone noodlings over renaissance singing, or as it turned out, over renaissance singing and my heartbeat. Such is the fate of recorded music once it is released into the World.
With the drops it was hard to see what was happening, but there is no mistaking a large needle.
“What’s that?” I said.
“I thought that was drops.”
“We supplement the drops.”
“That’s the worst bit,” said the nice anaesthetist. She held my hand throughout, which I appreciated. I thought it was human sympathy, and I’m sure it was, but also not thumping the surgeon.
After twenty minutes or so the sight in my right eye went altogether.
“I can’t see,” I said. “Is that as it should be?”
“That’ll be because we took out the optic nerve,” said the surgeon. “This is perfectly normal. You should be able to discern light in about twelve hours. And anyway you’ll have the eye-patch on till then.”
Then they took my blood pressure again. It had reached Dylan Thomas levels. They sighed, but took me off to the tea room. A couple of my fellow patients had waited for me.
“The sandwich is not up to much,” they said, “and the tea tastes like piss, so we’ve kept you a ham sandwich that we brought with us, and here is a proper Yorkshire tea bag.”
It’ll clear up in a week or so, they said, and so it is. Curiously you get no sympathy. Everyone tells you that when they had it done they leapt from the operating theatre and the world was as if new, like fairyland. Maybe it varies. Perhaps I’ll find out when they do the other one.