Cause of blindness - Trauma
I had been working in Madrid for a year, and I wanted to escape the big city for the summer. I found a job working at a hostel in the canary islands, on the north shore of Fuerteventura in the tiny town of Corralejo.
I loved my job in Madrid, but I came to love my life in Corralejo more. There was never a day that passed by where I didn't do something new and find joy and adventure. I surfed almost everyday, fell in love, played music and sang, practiced yoga, ate and drank well all the time.
This little island was heaven, but I had a plan.
The stint at the hostel would end Sept. 22, and I would go back to Madrid to a job that I loved and a master's program with my best friend, who was moving in with my other best friend and me.
Everything was going better than planned, I finally felt like I was finding my path after graduating college.
One Friday afternoon in Fuerteventura, I was on a date. Poor Jas, I still joke with him that I will forever be his worst date. We had packed up my car, brought food, drinks, surf boards, and a tent. The beach is beautiful, but it's a cove that is only reachable if you drive on a dirt road, then climb down a cliff. So we climbed down to the beach and set up this little green tent on the sand, then surfed as the sun set.
One by one people left the beach. As the sun disappeared, the stars came into view. Within minutes the whole sky lit up and there was a new depth to the darkness, I've never seen so much color in a night sky. We counted 8 shooting stars, and fell asleep on the sand before waking long enough to crawl into our tent and pass out to the sound of crashing waves.
In the morning it was so calm and beautiful. It was a Saturday and the waves were perfect, so lots of surfers came around. The water was packed with people. I planned on just surfing a little, then packing up and heading back to the hostel for the evening shift. I was paddling out, but the waves were weird, and the water was full of grumpy locals who were glaring like I was in their way.
I was going to get out of the water, but I had just caught a good wave and thought, ‘alright just one more’. As I was paddling I looked back to shore over my right shoulder. I saw in my peripherals a surfer above me catching a wave. Then the wave I was trying to pass broke over me. I felt a huge impact. Instead of floating over the wave, I got carried away with it. I was “in the washing machine," I was dazed. I couldn't control my body, couldn't tell up from down. I had enough sense to keep calm, hold my breath and wait for the wave to pass, then kick up as soon as I felt the sand.
You know the scratchy tv screen that goes black, white and fuzzy like the intro to hbo shows? That's what I saw, with red, green and purple stars in the corner of my vision. I remember it vividly, I saw it again and again over the next few months.
Finally I felt the sand and kicked up for air. But immediately I felt woozy, then a few seconds later there was a lot of pain. I looked down, saw blood, and heard shouts. Then hands were on my back helping me out of the water, holding me up as gentler waves came in. The set had finished, thank god.
We got to shore and I heard shouting for a medic. Someone gave me gauze to cover my eye. I looked up and saw Jas sprinting towards me. Every time I felt hysterical and began to cry I heard shushes and ‘it's ok’s and ‘estás bien’. I heard the voice of the surfer whose board had hit me. Between his apologies amid the chaos he said his name was Guille. He and Javi, a friend from another hostel, were making plans: two would help me get out of the beach, my friend would pack up the stuff and take the car.
We worked our way to the base of the cliff, people were gasping as we passed them.
We climbed up the cliff, somehow, and got to my friend’s car Guille kept talking to me to help keep me calm. I didn’t know it then, but this experience would bond us in an unimaginable way. He would become my friend. Anyways, someone finally got service to call an ambulance, but the ambulance couldn’t get through the dirt road. They told us to meet them at the closest town.
I sat in the front and Guille kept talking to me to keep me awake, but I was pretty dazed. I could feel my right hand and right leg going numb, maybe from the blood loss. That freaked me out more.
Finally the ambulance got to us and I remember sitting on the back of the ambulance on the side of the road. I puked. A lot. Then I ended up in a gurney under blankets staring at the ceiling of the ambulance. It took 45 minutes to get to the hospital. I was in and out of consciousness.
I woke up and saw Javi and Guille, my two surfer friends who drove me. Eventually I saw Jas and our friends from Corralejo who drove down to check on me. But they were asked to leave the room.
A doctor began to talk to me in Spanish. She asked if I knew where I was, if I knew she was a surgeon, and what happened. She told me, “your eye suffered a lot of damage. We are going to have to operate. I will do everything I can to save it, but you need to know there is a very low probability that we can save the eye. You are very lucky to be alive though."
My whole body tensed and for a moment I panicked. Then, because of the exhaustion and the relief to be alive, I relaxed. They left me alone for a moment to process it, and I even had to ask the doctor to repeat it all. It was jarring, especially to hear it in Spanish. Even though I'm fluent, the meaning wouldn’t register.
My friends came back in and the change was palpable. They were in shock. Guille, whose board had hit me, was in tears. I remember before surgery, Jas was holding my hand saying I needed to call my parents and I really didn’t want to, but I knew I should.
I talked to my mom briefly. She panicked. I left my dad a message. Later they both told me that my voice was eerily calm.
I woke up the next morning with lots of pain. I couldn't turn my head or move my eyes, so I just closed them and was in and out of consciousness. Pati, my roommate and best friend on the island spent the night with me. By the late evening my dad arrived. He booked the first flight he could get as soon as he heard. He took cars, planes and ferries to get to me, and when he walked through the door and saw me he collapsed by my bed crying. That was a first. It was hard, but we regrouped. I was at the hospital for a week. Lots of visitors, flowers, snacks, love. It was heartwarming, but also just so shocking. I still couldn’t process it. At all.
Leaving the hospital with my dad was an adventure. I bumped into doors and missed a couple curbs. I didn't feel comfortable walking without hooking onto my dad's arm. The airport was funny, with my one good eye I could read the flight boards better than my dad.
I cracked a lot of pirate jokes from the get go. My favorite was on our layover in Dublin, I asked my dad “What do Ireland and me have in common?... we both have one eye." My dad only glared at me, but eventually he understood humor was how I coped.
A few days after our flight I remember waking up and going to rub my eyes in the morning like I used to. I realized how bad of an idea that was.
When I returned home, I was pretty mobile. My friends and family expected me to be bedridden and resting, but I was eager to enjoy the newness of being home and being alive.
I did slam mugs on the table, and I had to be careful when people handed me things. The first time a moth flew through the house, I was really freaked out. I'm not scared of bugs at all, but the speed made it hard to tell exactly where they were in the room.
Despite all of these little changes, I've realized that I would never lose my sense of adventure, I just have to be more cautious. I'm learning to be mindful everyday, and to never leave home without glasses, since I now have no back up eyeballs ;)
The first time I saw a lot of family members was a big deal. Lots of tears were shed. The first time I told a stranger my experience and received support and love in return, that was empowering.
When I had come home, there was a note under the microwave in the kitchen. In my mom's handwriting it said: "life is 90% what happens to us, and 10% how we choose to react.” That mentality got me through so much.
For example, before the accident I had done judo all my life; I'm used to fighting and not giving up. But after a few light workouts, I realized it was going to be too dangerous. It was hard accepting that a sport that I'd done ever since I could walk was now too dangerous to practice. There was just too high a risk of getting poked in my good eye. But instead of grieving over these new limitations, I turned to yoga. My mom suggested I write “10% or 90%” at the top of my yoga mat, to remind me of my choice to adapt with my own reactions, or let the things happening to me determine my life. I had power despite the fact that there are many uncontrollable things in life, and yoga further helped me to let go of what I couldn't control.
I learned to be comfortable with a sense of surrender, and I felt empowered as I embarked on a 200 hour teacher training, for which I'm so thankful I had the opportunity to do. I learned to preserve my independence from before the accident, but also to allow moments of dependence on friends and family who were eager to help me. I've found beauty in something that others find tragic.
But it took time, and it wasn’t easy. The first few days of being home, I was afraid to see friends and family. I was afraid to open the door when someone rang. For a while I didn't want to FaceTime friends in Europe. I had some misplaced guilt, which is still hard to describe. People were telling me "you're an inspiration, you're so amazing and brave," but in my head I had to bite my tongue every time I wanted to explain that this happened to me, I didn't choose it.
My friend helped me come to terms with it: "it's not about the accident itself. It's about you overcoming it, whether or not you want to. It's about how so many people have their own rogue surfboards and lost vision they have to battle. And you, by sharing your story, give them hope." When she said that, something changed in me. I started to understand how my story could help someone else.
A few months later a family friend asked me to speak about my experience in front of an entire martial arts school. Over 400 people watched me step on the mat and do judo with my dad. They couldn't even tell I didn't have an eye until I began to speak about it. I was so nervous, even saying hi into the mic. But with each word I grew stronger. It was so well received that after the event people would come up to me to share their own stories of struggle, and thank me for sharing mine. That validated so much of the hardship I had felt. It was then I could sense the beauty in the pain and struggle. Everyone can find joy in both the good times and the bad. I found it in my darkest moments, and I believe that others can find their reason to smile and laugh despite any hardship, fears or darkness.
I remember in 2nd grade, kids would make fun of me because they couldn't see my eyes when I laughed or smiled-- which was all the time. Now I understand it's an equalizer; no matter who it is, when they are truly happy and smiling their eyes wrinkle so you can't see them!
The most powerful moment for me was when I looked in the mirror at the ocularist office with the first model of my prosthetic eye. My mom went to every appointment with me, and cried as soon as she saw the first model (which was just wax and a sharpied-in black dot). I didn’t think I would cry, because even if I didn't have the lens, I could live life happy. I grew to be confident in my appearance and I had accepted my situation.
I also had conflicting feelings about the prosthetic, I was worried I would be presenting a fake version of me. But the moment I caught a glimpse of the prosthetic eye in that mirror, I burst into tears. It felt like seeing an old friend. I felt like something that had been taken away, that could never be returned, had in fact been put back.
Now I'm grateful, the prosthetic gives me a chance and a choice to share my story, or to blend in with the rest of the two-eyed world.