I was born in the mid-1950s into a family where juvenile (type 1) diabetes played a prominent role. A year before my birth, my brother, age four, was diagnosed; when I was three, my sister, age thirteen, received the same pronouncement. As the “healthy” child, I watched my stressed parents try to manage the disease using the existing therapies.
To check my siblings’ sugar levels, they used a urine test, which doesn’t accurately reflect the body’s current blood sugar level but instead approximates what it was hours ago. They would then administer insulin or juice, depending on whether the blood sugar level needed to be lowered or raised. To make matters worse, long-acting insulin, the only kind then available, reduced sugar levels very slowly.
Today, advances in medical technology enable people with diabetes to control their sugar levels effectively, thus avoiding diabetic complications that used to occur more frequently.
Though my sister had diabetes for fewer years than my brother, she suffered more complications. Cindi was hospitalized for low or high blood sugar so many times that I lost count. In her mid-twenties, she was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy—damaged blood vessels in the retina, which can lead to blindness.
Two experimental operations to save her eyesight failed. She lost sight in the eye they operated on and had little vision in her “good” eye.
Legally blind by her mid-twenties, she left work to attend the Pittsburgh Guild for the Blind, where she learned to read and type Braille, walk with a cane and rely on her other senses. She looked just the same after graduation, except that she used a folding cane.
Cindi dressed fashionably, teased and dyed her hair and applied makeup—all without using a mirror. Able to differentiate light from dark and to make out shapes and outlines in good light, she moved into an apartment where she cooked, entertained and dated.
She returned to work with her previous employer. A voracious reader, she listened to countless “talking books,” tapes sent from the Library of Congress. She also relied on volunteer readers (at one point, my retired father and me) and later paid others to read to her.
While attending a university near Cindi’s apartment, I began to spend more time with her, and after graduating, I landed a job in the agency where she worked. We became best friends.
Over a dozen years, to my distress, her “bad” eye went from looking normal to looking like it had pinkeye to looking like it had been hit with a baseball bat—bloodshot, with angry-looking veins.
Seeing my sister’s bad eye, I would be reminded that she saw nothing through it and feel overcome by profound sadness. I began to look out for my brilliant sister, who could no longer drive, walk without a cane or read a beloved book. Our roles had been reversed: In many ways, I now felt like the older sister.
I also noticed how some people treated my sister after she lost her sight. From a distance, I’d watch, infuriated, as coworkers who knew she was blind walked past her in the hallway without saying hello. But what really got under my skin was when strangers gaped at her eye. While I understood their curiosity, seeing her objectified like that pained me.
Some people grew bolder, exclaiming, “Your eye looks terrible! What happened?” or “Is your eye okay?” I knew that Cindi felt crushed by these comments. As hard as it was to hear them, she must have found it even more painful to explain her diabetic complications and two failed operations.
In her forties, trying to avoid such comments, Cindi changed her hairstyle: Instead of parting her brown, shoulder-length locks in the middle, she parted them on the side and wore long, swoopy bangs over her bad eye.
The bangs couldn’t hide that her eye looked worse every year, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her. And despite her new hairdo, the insensitive remarks continued.
One day at lunch, she asked, “What does my left eye look like?”
At first, I didn’t respond.
“Tell me the truth,” she said.
I put down my sandwich, took a sip from my drink and gulped.
“Your eye looks pretty bad. It’s red—it looks inflamed—and it has veins running through it.”
I left out the angry-looking part, and that I found it hard to look at. She’d suffered enough.
She put down her sandwich, looked away and was silent.
She began wearing a black eye patch. After a few years, though, she tired of looking like a pirate and opted for a prosthetic eye.
I drove her to an ocular specialist. The waiting room was lined with rows of narrow shelves displaying bright white eyeballs of various sizes, their irises in seemingly endless shades of brown, amber, hazel, green, blue and gray.
I picked up an eye whose iris matched Cindi’s blue and began examining its intricate artistry, feeling anxious about handling such a unique artifact.
The ball slipped out of my shaking hand and crashed to the tile floor, sounding like a mis-hit cue ball that had leaped off a pool table.
I lunged for the eyeball, expecting the staff to fling open the door and ask what was happening. But the ball was quicker than me: it bounced left, then right, then straight—everywhere but where I thought it would go. Grabbing for it, I kept remembering the signs I’d seen in stores: “If you break it, you bought it.”
It wasn’t until the sixth or seventh bounce that I finally nabbed the eyeball. Holding it in my palm, I checked for cracks. Finding none, I exhaled, returned it to its empty spot on the shelf and sat down.
“Did you break it?” Cindy asked.
Finding humor in this somber setting was inappropriate, but the tension was too much. We convulsed with laughter, bent over in our chairs, wiping away happy tears. Only the doctor’s entrance finally stifled our laughter.
After a medical history and examination, he walked to his prized eyeball collection, picked out a few blue ones and held them up to her good eye one by one until he found the best match. After taking her eye measurements, he asked her to return for the prosthesis once her bad eye had been surgically removed.
Back in my car, we revisited the tale of the bouncing orb and laughed almost the entire ride home.
Cindi’s prosthetic eye bore an uncanny resemblance to her good one. It took a keen observer to notice that one eye didn’t track, and that its pupil didn’t dilate or contract like the other.
Sightless though it was, the artificial eye made my dear sister appear normal again. Now when people looked at her, they no longer stared or made comments.
Despite all the surgeries and misfortunes Cindi had suffered, she accepted her new eye without any qualms or regrets. In fact, she was happy.
And she regained her confidence. She parted her chin-length hair in the middle again, did away with the swoopy bangs and showed off her new eye.
That made me happy.
17 thoughts on ““How Does It Look?””
She was an inspiration and I know she would would love to hear someone read this story to her.
I think you’re right..I will read it to her.
Cared for a patient once; no one had noticed he had a prosthetic eye until he popped it out and put it in his mouth and replaced it in the socket.
What made me smile through my tears was the sentence where you explain that after graduating you landed a job near her and “we became best friends.”
No doubt, having a sister who is her best friend
has gone a long way toward giving your sister the
Extraordinary courage to cope with the loss of her eyes.
You both are very lucky. .
In 1983 when I was a medical student working in a refugee camp with Cambodians/Laotians/Vietnamese victims of war in one of many Thailand camps I saw a little boy who had a febrile seizure in the “hot tots” clinic. While assessing him, I checked his eyes/pupils with my penlight. One eye seemed different. Nonreactive pupil, no proper movement. As I moved my light closer to the weird eyeball, I actually tapped it several times hearing it click and figured out it was a prosthesis. The nurses, translators, etc present all gasped when I tapped the patient’s eye.
Wonderful story. Brought tears to MY eyes.
Lori, This is a very moving story of a family dealing with juvenile diabetes and all of its dire consequences. As in your story, it reminded me of internship when we had to monitor glucose with urine dip sticks. Fortunately, we advanced to finger sticks, Dexcom glucose monitors and insulin pumps to better control diabetes so that patients can reduce the risk of suffering the loss of sight as your sister did.
Very well written description of the early days of treating diabetes. You may enjoy reading Breakthrough about the discovery of Insulin and the Making of a Medical Miracle, by Thea Cooper and Arthur Ainsberg.
‘“Your eye looks terrible! What happened?” or “Is your eye okay?”
Language is powerful. What is said and what is silent between the words. I wonder what would have happened if someone noticed the eye, and said something like, “There’s a story there. I’m curious what it might be.”
“The ball slipped out of my shaking hand and crashed to the tile floor, sounding like a mis-hit cue ball that had leaped off a pool table.”
Love the imagery here, the desire to chase something aesthetically beautiful to heal what feels ugly on multiple levels.
Thank you, Lori for this beautiful memoir honoring your sister.
What a touching story, deftly bridging pain and humor.
One of my high school and college friends had a prosthetic eye and every once and a while, for the shock value and when he was in a humorous state, would pop out his eye. He was an amazing individual, highly respected in his work and community.
Thank you for sharing this wonderful story of resiliency and evoking the memory of my friend.
Wonderful and insightful story!
Thank you for sharing this story. People are so often inept in dealing with disabilities.
I still remember my “blind” grandma’s eyes from nearly seventy years ago. As a child , I wondered why her eyes were always looking up. I had no comprehension of what she could or could not see. I only knew I’d been told she was blind. I learned to love sitting next to her on the couch during her infrequent visits from another state. I remember the feel of her navy serge dress and the sweet smell of her talcum powder as her warm hand clasped mine. Thank you for your story. Your sister was a gem.
A beautiful tribute to an impressive and resilient sister.
A great story, very human and well told. Thank you!