It’s fitting, in retrospect, that rupture and disability would hit my beloved Toyota RAV4 first. One cloudless day, during rush hour, a giant flap guarding something in its mysterious nether regions separated from its body and began scraping the road.
I should mention, my Rav was 20 years old and, not unlike me, in pretty fabulous condition considering its age.
I immediately glared at the driver in the next lane, wondering how long his muffler had been making this horrible racket, before realizing I was the culprit. I pulled to the curb and waited until the traffic had moved sufficiently forward so no one would remember me. The rusted offending part easily came off in my hands and I placed it in the trunk, where I forgot about it. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
A few weeks later, at the gym, a similar event happened in my body. A sudden explosion in my right eye, dozens of crazy black floaters like snarly branches dancing across my sight line – my first response was deny, deny – then, within an hour, a gradual fogging of my vision as if I were looking out the dirtiest windshield imaginable. The thought of losing my sight was terrifying. If I closed my left eye I could barely make out shapes with the right. It was scary. I grabbed an Uber and went straight to my optician.
When her x-rays were inconclusive, she sent me to Emergency. An on-call ophthalmologist referred me to a retinal surgeon who eventually diagnosed the problem. A hemorrhage behind my eye had been obscuring everything but he found a tear in my retina. “You are so lucky,” he said, followed by, “We are doing this right now, okay?”
He froze my eyeball and went in with a laser to repair the tear. Imagine a jackhammer with green flashing lights on your face for 30 minutes.
“One more day,” he said, almost to himself, “you would have been in serious trouble.”
I was convinced my driving days were over.
My doctor said retinal tears happen to lots of people (hence his packed waiting room, all ages) due to “life,” “age” and “bad luck.” How could I not have known this? There is no magic formula for prevention. It can happen while rolling over in your sleep. According to the Canadian Association of Optometrists, by age 65, one in nine Canadians develop irreversible vision loss, and by age 75 this ratio increases to one in four.
The laser part wasn’t fun. Over the next few months, Dr. Yan found a second tear and a third. He spoke about the “debris” floating around my eyeball, like it was a planet surrounded by space junk. You’d never know this from the outside, because after the red went away, the eye appeared normal, deceptively healthy; instead, there was mayhem back there.
In the middle of the night, while trying to sleep propped up, I obsessed about cars and eyeballs. Hollywood legend Sammy Davis Jr. lost his left eye in a car accident and famously wore a glass eye. That didn’t stop him from collecting – and driving – vintage autos. Actor Peter Falk starred in the TV series Columbo, as a disheveled one-eyed PI. His signature car, a 1959 Peugeot convertible, was equally disheveled. Then, the comedic stretch with Al Pacino, as blind -man-driving in Scent of A Woman in an implausible death-defying ride.
But while Hollywood treats blind drivers as comedy, what about real life? What about ordinary Canadians who become vision impaired?
The news is heartening. It turns out you don’t need both eyes to drive in Ontario, as long as your one good eye has learned to compensate.
You’ll be tested for what’s called “monocular vision.” If the driver’s licensing office is satisfied you have a normal field of vision, you can drive. Even if you have macular degeneration and pass a test, you can drive. Even if you have glaucoma and retain enough peripheral vision, you can drive.
All to say, it’s not over till its over. If the unexpected happens (retinal tears, such as mine), chances are you’ll be okay. If not, technology is coming to the rescue. Self-driving cars are around the corner.
Editor’s note: (January 2, 2019) An earlier version of this article stated in the caption that it was a 2002 RAV4. In fact, it is a 1997 RAV4.
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