Short-Sighted by Kelly Chen

*Some details have been changed to protect privacy.

When I was eight years old, my mother asked me why I was sitting so close to the TV. “I don’t know,” I replied, and scooted back to the couch. She left the living room, and ten minutes later I was back with my nose pressed up against an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants.

The next week Mom said we were going to the doctor, but instead of saying “Ahh” and sticking my tongue out, all I had to do was sit in a dark room and follow the doctor’s penlight with my eyes.

“Try reading that,” the doctor said.

“Read what?” I asked. She was pointing straight ahead, and all I could see was a dim fuzzy mess.

That was the best doctor’s appointment I had ever been to. Afterwards I delighted in looking at the rows of shiny glasses in the showroom displays. Pink or green, round or rectangular, metal or plastic, each pair of frames offered a different look when resting upon my nose. Some quirky, some serious, some goofy. I settled on a pair of light blue frames with butterflies along the arms.

My first pair of glasses were my constant companion – the first thing I reached for in the morning, and the last thing I put away at night. They helped me finish reading assignments faster and helped me make the game-winning catch in the rec-league T-ball championship. They were my first taste of responsibility as I learned how to carefully wipe the lenses and place them in a case. They were the first time I experienced panic, after I had taken them off to go swimming, only to have Mom frantically drive back to the local pool when I realized I had left them on a pool chair.

Several years later, my glasses had become my mortal enemy.

Now I knew what to expect at annual checkups. The sting of dilating eye drops followed by 24 hours of dim vision as the medication wore off.  Answering endless “1 or 2? 3 or 4? Better or worse?” questions from the optometrist. Holding my breath while waiting for the verdict – my prescription had worsened by another full diopter, which meant even thicker lenses. I could no longer choose frames based on what I liked – I had to choose frames that were sturdy enough to accommodate my increasingly high prescription, and ones that had wide arms so I could hide how thick my lenses were.

Why did my vision keep worsening? “Your eyes are elongating, so light can’t focus directly on your retina,” the optometrist said nonchalantly. I was horrified. She explained how as I grew up, my vision would continue to worsen. Classmates at school started to notice. “Your lenses are the thickest I’ve ever seen, congratulations,” one classmate remarked, laughing as my face burned from embarrassment. I resented my glasses more even as I became increasingly dependent on them. They were a reminder of how I couldn’t go swimming because we couldn’t afford prescription-goggles, how the only sunglasses I could wear were clip-ons, and how I had almost failed to get my driver’s permit during the eye exam because even an annual checkup couldn’t keep up with my worsening vision.

One of the few activities that I still appreciated my glasses for was my favorite hobby – chess. My vision had worsened so much over the years that without my glasses, I couldn’t even see the board and pieces in front of me. Since competitive chess games could last up to four hours, I was grateful for the clear view my glasses provided.

Near the end of one of my chess tournaments, I walked over to greet my opponent. She was my age, with a friendly smile, short afro, and bright brown eyes. It was going to be a high stakes game, with the winner guaranteed to place among the top three players. We shook hands, started the game clock, and began.

Soon after we made our opening moves, I interrupted her, “You can’t move there – that’s not how knights move.” She stared at the board for a second. “Oh sorry, you’re right,” she said, embarrassed, and quickly corrected the position of her knight.

The same thing happened a few times over the course of our game. It didn’t make sense. I knew we were equally matched in terms of skill because we had the same win-loss record in the tournament. She didn’t use the gimmicks characteristic of beginning players, and I knew she was going to be a formidable opponent. Not knowing how the pieces moved was a beginner mistake. Shrugging it off in my mind, I concentrated on making well thought-out moves. Three hours later our match ended in a draw, a hard-fought result that satisfied both of us. Soon after the match, a photographer took a picture of us shaking hands and grinning.

A week later, I received the newspaper article covering the tournament in the mail. I spotted our picture and saw that she had given an interview to the newspaper as well. She was from an underprivileged area of D.C. and had bounced around shelters her entire life. She found that chess helped her concentrate despite her other struggles. Due to outstanding talent, she had won a scholarship covering flight and fees to compete in the national tournament where we had met. She hadn’t told tournament organizers that a week earlier, a jealous girl at her group home had broken her glasses. She had played all her games while barely being able to see the board.

Since then, I have never viewed my glasses – the gift of sight – in the same way. These days, I view my worsening prescription not with lament, but with gratitude at having insurance that covers my glasses and a vision condition that is correctable. Each pair of my old glasses has gone to a donation bin, and my birthday donation requests now go to vision foundations. As an aspiring ophthalmologist, my goal is to treat the visual disorders that rob patients of their sight. Growing up with severe myopia and the experiences that come with it have ensured that I will not be short-sighted.

Download a copy of Short-Sighted by Kelly Chen

Bio: Kelly Chen graduated with distinction from Stanford University with a degree in biology. She has long held an interest in medical humanities. Kelly currently attends the University of Alabama School of Medicine.