Before they could go all “Star Trek” on me with the proton beam, they needed to figure out where to point their phaser, so to speak.
You see, with ocular tumours, you can’t just wing it. The eye isn’t just a delicate organ. It’s also neighbour to the brain, which means any off-target radiation could have some pretty unpleasant side effects.
Then, they sew four little markers made of tantalum around the tumour on the back of my peeper.
In case you’re wondering, Tantalum is a heavy-duty metal that shows up clear as day on imaging scans. It’s kind of like a GPS for surgical procedures, helping guide the docs to the right spot.
The markers have a two-fold mission. Firstly they’re like cartographers for the medical team, providing a precise ‘map’ of the area to be treated. This helps them aim the proton beam just right so they zap the tumour and leave the healthy tissues alone.
Secondly, they’re also like the quality control department. During the treatment, they keep an eye on things by comparing ongoing imaging scans with the original ‘map’ to make sure the beam hasn’t gone rogue.
I’d made the call to ride out the marker installation under local anaesthesia, not general. This choice seemed to surprise my surgeon, yet another knock-out Asian beauty. It was almost as if they were intentionally bringing out these attractive docs just to keep my mind off the upcoming horror. I suspected they just wheeled out the Cyberdyne Systems Asian Android 101 to put me at ease, and then they’d swap her out for the real surgeon in the OR.
I explained to her that general anaesthesia and I had a pretty lousy track record. I woke up fine the last three times I’d been under, but within half an hour, I was barfing up something horrid. And this hurl-fest would go on every half-hour for the next eight hours. As you can imagine, my head was pounding by the end, and it felt like my stomach was trying to do a Houdini.
Sure, the downside to local anaesthesia was that it needed a needle. Like when you’re at the dentist and they shove that needle into your gum. It’s the worse bit.
And what’s with them always saying “sharp scratch”? There’s no scratching involved! It’s a prick, not a scratch. Sleeping Beauty didn’t scratch her finger on that spinning wheel. She pricked it. They should just say “small prick” when the needle hits home. But I guess that’s a little too on-the-nose for our sensitive times.
I wasn’t exactly thrilled about getting a small prick in my eye, but it was way better than the alternative. Dressed in the standard hospital gown with my backside getting some fresh air, I was in the freezing cold OR. And there was Asian Android 101. She draped a large sheet of blue paper over my head and cut out a hole over my troublesome eye. They’d even drawn a big arrow with a felt tip, so that they wouldn’t mess with the wrong one.
I squinted one-eyed as they put anaesthetic drops into my eye. Those drops stung like hell.
When I was a child of around eight years old, I was sitting on the toilet and noticed a bottle of Dettol in the corner of the room. My eye was particularly drawn to it because it was a plastic bottle. This may seem odd now, but back in the 70s, a plastic bottle was actually very unusual. Bottles were normally made of glass.
I leant forward and picked the bottle up, admiring this brand new space-age material. I discovered that if I squeezed the bottle a little, the orangey liquid inside would rise up towards the top. When I released the pressure, the liquid would fall again. So fascinated by this was I that I repeated the up-down-up-down several more times. However, the main problem with 1970s plastic was that it wasn’t very forgiving. It was actually very brittle. I squeezed one last time, watching the liquid magically inch its way up the bottle, when suddenly, bam, the bottle broke, and my face was sprayed with Dettol from about six inches away. That’s how much those bloody acid drops sting!
Without missing a beat, they swabbed my eye with a cotton ball soaked in Iodine. It felt cold, but other than that, I couldn’t feel a thing. Probably a good thing because next up, they shoved a speculum-like device into my eye socket to wedge my eyelids wide open. My eye must have looked like a scene from a horror movie, but Asian Android kept her poker face.
And then came the pièce de résistance, or was it a coup de grâce? A large needle loomed into view. It inched closer and closer to my eyeball. I wanted to close my eye, but it was held wide open. I stared, unblinking, as the needle touched my eyeball. I felt the increasing pressure being applied, followed by a slight release as my cornea was punctured. I’ve no idea how far the needle went in. I’m assuming just into the anterior chamber in front of the lens, but who knows?
“Don’t move,” she told me in a calm voice. Like I was going to start doing the Macarena with a giant needle in my eye.
The pressure in my eye built up as they injected the anaesthesia. It felt like my eyeball was going to burst, just like that Dettol bottle did all those years ago. And then, there was this pop. It wasn’t a sound—more of a sensation. And then everything went black. I couldn’t see a thing. I was blind!
Meanwhile, the surgical team was just chatting away like they were at a Sunday lunch. But it sure as heck didn’t feel like a casual Sunday for me.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll remember that those tantalum markers were supposed to go at the back of my eye. And no, they don’t take your eye out to do this. The eye is actually held in place by several muscles, and to access the back, they use a crochet needle-like instrument, hook it around the Lateral and Medial rectus muscles, and give them a good yank. So the back of your eye is now front and centre.
Even with the local anaesthetic working its magic, this forceful procedure was far from comfortable. But once my eye was manoeuvred around, the first of the four markers was sewn into position on the back of my eyeball. Its exact spot, in relation to the tumour, was recorded to guide the PBT later.
After the tugging, attaching, and measuring were over, I was allowed to sit up slowly. By this time, my eye was covered with protective gauze and an eyepatch that could give any pirate a run for their money.
Finally, my golden opportunity to talk like a pirate had arrived!
Emerging from the theatre, I was feeling light as a feather, free as a bird, or perhaps more aptly, breezy as a back-to-front hospital gown. No stomach uprisings in sight, and my head was as clear as a bell. Everything was coming up roses.
Or so I naively believed. Fast forward an hour or two, and I was lounging at home, trying to live my best pirate life. Suddenly, it was as if a disgruntled hammerhead shark decided to start gnawing at my eye socket. Silly me, I’d only had my eye used as a ping-pong ball by a team of medical professionals. Who was I kidding? Of course, it was going to unleash a symphony of pain on my nerve endings, a concert that was less Mozart and more Megadeth.
And let me tell you. It didn’t just hurt; it screamed blue murder like a prima donna denied her limelight.
There was some good news, though. When I took my patch off, I could actually see again. Yay!
You might wonder, what does an eye look like after it’s been on the receiving end of a crochet needle joust? I’ll spare you the gory details, but let’s just say it was less doe-eyed Disney princess and more, well, Picasso’s abstract period.
Actually, sod that. Here’s a photo of the gory details.