Wallpapering a Curved Ceiling

By Julianne Dalcanton | September 15, 2008 3:18 pm

Well into my household’s Year of Sensory Input Issues, my husband is dealing with a detached retina. It’s been a sometimes frightening experience — for example, did you know that if you have to leave an international flight en route, that the customs agent will come out and clear your passport on the ambulance? And that in spite of their stinginess with blankets and pretzels, United Airlines really can come through in a crisis? Annoying as it’s been, the experience has been filled with Cool Applications of Physics, which helps me pass the time.

A retinal detachment involves the retina (which lines the back of your eye like wallpaper) sagging away from the back of the eye (as your wallpaper might do in a damp bathroom). Now, if you’ve ever tried to wallpaper a curved surface, you know it’s not easy to get some intrinsically flat thing to stick smoothly to the inside of the curve, especially when that bitch Gravity is pulling it down all the time. The clever way that retinal surgery deals with this (squeamish people stop reading now, please) is to suck some of the goo out of your eye and replace it with a gas bubble. You then tilt your head into the right position to have the gas bubble float up into the correct portion of the eye while the retina re-attaches. For a month. If you’re lucky, you get to sit up, but if you’re unlucky, you spend a month looking at the floor. In addition, you cannot go up or down in altitude by more than a thousand feet or so, because when you have an air bubble in your eye pressure changes are not a great idea.

My husband has been lucky enough to have a sitting-up kind of detachment so far (though I’m writing this while waiting for him to get out of surgery a second time, since it seems to have detached again, and based on where he lost vision and knowing the inversion of the image that takes place in the eye’s reimaging system, I’m worried he’s going to be a floor-looking guy when he comes out). The cool bit about getting to look at him face-on is that you can actually see the bubble! He looks like a human level, as the bubble readjusts as he tips his head.

The other physicsy bit is that when you have a gas bubble in your eye, your index of refraction is all wrong, and in spite of having a working retina attached in the right place, you still can’t see, because the air-lens interface steers the light to the wrong place. This gets better as the air is absorbed by the body and replaced with fluid. It’s also better when you tip your head down so the bubble floats away from the lens.

The upshot of all this is that I think that modern medicine is pretty darn clever, though I wish I didn’t have to know about it.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health, Personal, Technology
  • Tyler

    wow. just…wow

    best of luck to your husband!

  • Josh

    I had a detached retina when I was 7 — enjoy the bubble; you’ll miss it long after it’s gone. Good luck.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Ouch. Here’s to a speedy recovery.

  • Brad Holden

    That bubble thing is REALLY cool.

    The detached retina, not so much….

    Good luck JD and husband!

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B. ?

    My sister had to go through a similar ordeal, but had the worse “lying down” version. She still has a sort of “crease” in that retina and thus in the visual field, and I think it is good to get the very best laser surgeon for treatment. Follow the doctors’ advice about how to move and be situated however annoying and inconvenient it seems, this is serious business. Best wishes for a rapid and complete recovery.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/joanne/ JoAnne

    I hope the second surgery does the trick! My Mother-in-law went through this recently and was on her stomach for a month.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/julianne Julianne

    The surgeon reportedly “lasered the heck out of the retina” and put in a scleral buckle (which is not nearly as cool as the bubble, and is much more, well, gross). I think with the buckle the chance of re-detachment is way down, but so is the odds of ever getting close to normal vision again. It’s a bummer, especially since his eyes were just drastically improved by cataract surgery a few months ago.

    Like I said, year of sensor input issues…bleh.

  • http://the-oort-cloud.blogspot.com/ clowncar

    Hope your husband will be seeing the world more clearly soon.

    I’ve been lurking at this blog for awhile now, and just wanted to let you all know I really enjoy it.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    I’ll keep my fingers crossed Julianne! Best wishes and good luck to both of you.

  • Claire

    Wow, best of luck to your husband for his recovery. My brother had a detached retina on both eyes years ago from a car accident, and it was a tough time. But it does heal.

    Also, here’s some hugs and wishes for you… I know how tough it is to have all these dramas: my husband has been in surgery 5 times this year, including 2 spinal surgeries and an epidural. 95% of the papers I’ve read this year have been in hospitals. Anyway, even though you have to be the strong one it still takes its toll, so i just wanted to let you know that we’re thinking of you too 😉

  • Ralph Hartley

    Having experienced laser retinal surgery myself (though not for a detached retina), I have nothing but sympathy for you and your husband, and really hope he has a good outcome.

    However, I do have to take exception to one thing you said, especially since it appears in the title of the post:

    &gt Now, if you’ve ever tried to wallpaper a curved surface, you know it’s not easy to get some intrinsically flat thing to stick smoothly to the inside of the curve

    The retina is not an “intrinsically flat thing”, it is curved just like the inside of the eye. It is at least possible in principle to spread the retina back onto the inside of the eye without stretching folding or tearing.

    You still have the problem of getting a thin, fragile, sheet of slime stuck back where it belongs, but getting it spread out on a flat surface would be impossible.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    Good luck on this. Success with this procedure is pretty good. The retina (wallpaper) more or less has a curvature to match the back of the eye, so it is not that tough to do.

    L. C.

  • Sili

    Is the detachment and the cataract surgery related?

    I’ll keep my toes crossed (not that it helps).

    I’m squeamish – very (despite my recent adventure into mousekilling), but the “human level” made me laugh. Shoulda got him to fix your pictures.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/julianne Julianne

    Is the detachment and the cataract surgery related?

    They’re not unrelated, but it’s not directly causal either. Previous eye surgery is one of the risk factors, as is being caucasian and nearsighted. He just lost on the odds.

  • NGC3314

    Is it just the timing of seeing the Hubble release picture after your blog entry, or do you also see that ACS galaxy pair looking sort of like an eye with a bubble in it? Best wishes, of course, on his recovery – I remember being worried out of my gourd waiting for a diagnosis of what turned out to be a mere fluffing of retinal layers.

  • Pingback: Wallpapering a Curved Ceiling : Sophoblog()

  • http://mydailymail.wordpress.com Amy

    Hello! I think we’re paddling the same canoe. My husband had scleral buckle surgery two days ago; diabetic retinopathy treated in April, scarring over the summer, retinal detachment in August with a vitrectomy, then scarring and holes resulting in the lovely scleral buckle on Monday. Here’s hoping for a great outcome for both guys!

  • Mike M

    Always good to put things in perspective: I have just spent a year whinging about the nasty Weiss Ring floater I am stuck with after a posterior vitreous detachment and retinal tear. It and its floaty friends are still annoying the hell out of me, but posts here have me counting my blessings.

    Good luck!

  • Yoron

    Doesn’t sound like much fun, especially if one like to read.
    You better be sure that he follows the Doctors orders here…

    Good luck.


  • Bob A.

    Your husband can now look forward to the only fun part of retinal surgery, As the bubble gets smaller, your vision improves but the refraction at the spherical surface of the bubble becomes greater. The bubble begins to look like a shiny black marble at the bottom (actually the top) of your eye. If you get bored you can rock your head and make the little marble roll from side to side and watch it get smaller every day until one day it is totally gone. Then you can celebrate.


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