Cataracts bring vision's value into focus
IT was an affront to my baby boomer self's illusion of eternal youth to experience a growing inability to decipher freeway signs. I was forced to rely upon passengers, including my teenage son's sharp vision (and tongue) for navigating.

Finally, I got myself to the eye doctor, anticipating that I would be consigned to wearing glasses for distance vision for the first time in my life.

My self-diagnosis was wrong. Through a fancy machine in the doctor's office, I could see the elliptical shadows. I had "significant" cataracts, or clouding of the lens, on both eyes.

How had I suddenly turned into my grandmother? "Cataracts can happen at any age," I was repeatedly told as I consulted several ophthalmologists.

Then began the quest for a surgeon to repair my vision. The first guy I saw, a short-tempered perfectionist with a gleaming, state-of-the-art office and great reputation, put me off the whole business. He rebuked me for flinching when he shone a light into my eye, then lectured me as if I were a rapt student. He seemed uninterested in my particular eyes and nonplused when I asked a question about them. I fled.

The next guy I saw had begun his career as a pediatrician and was long on warm, supportive attention. Perhaps too much so; now I worried about competence.

Getting into the swing of this, I saw a third guy (very smart and informative, but somewhat old-fashioned in approach) and a fourth (excellent reputation, conservative but more inclined to install the newer, multifocal lenses than guy No. 3).

He's who I chose.

Cataract surgery, generally done one eye at a time, is simple: Through a minute incision, the cloudy lens is removed and an artificial one is installed. For me, the patient, there was drip anesthesia, but not enough, sadly, to send me into giddy raptures and indifference to what was happening in and around my eye. ("It's necessary to be alert enough to remember not to force your eye closed during the procedure," I was told. Oh well.)

And, to my amazement, during surgery there was a colored light show, produced by my very own eye and worthy of Cirque du Soleil. Lights and colors (purple and pink with a worm-like oozing of hunter green weaving throughout) -- an inexplicable psychedelic performance.

Then it was over. My eye was light sensitive, and I experienced a "grain of sand in the eye" feeling for a few days. A tedious regimen of eye drops followed. But there was nothing visible -- no incision, stitch or redness -- to point to the miracle that had transpired.

Seeing again is startlingly ordinary. I had hoped for bionic vision -- greedy boomer that I am -- but my treated vision is not superhuman, just "good enough." No glasses needed, mild halos around lights.

I speak as if this miracle is commonplace, which I suppose it is, nowadays.

When the ancients developed cataracts, they relinquished their vision. I didn't even have to choose between distance and near-vision -- with the newest technology, I could have both.

Science and medicine quietly move forward, transforming the extraordinary into the ordinary. A short, painless procedure, and sight is restored.

It's the best kind of miracle there is -- the low-key, life-enhancing kind.

Pamela Freundl Kirst is a psychologist and writer in Santa Monica.