Anita Gill – I Have Been Truly Blessed

It was a Thursday night in October 1953. I was 5 years old. It was bedtime and time for the obligatory bedtime story, Peter Pan in fact. As far as I knew, it was a normal evening, with Mum reading my story after my bath before bedtime. It seems like yesterday – it is all so clear.

Halfway through the story, Mum covered my left eye with her hand and asked if I could see how many fingers she was holding up. I replied of course I couldn’t, moved her hand and then supplied her with the correct answer. She tried again, just to receive the same answer from me. I covered her left eye and wouldn’t believe her when she told me she could see through her right eye!!!

She left my room and I could hear her crying in her bedroom. Dad was in there with her – I just wanted someone to complete my bedtime story, which eventually Dad did and I, unaware of what had preceded this evening, blissfully and ignorantly slept peacefully through the night. No doubt Mum and Dad did not sleep so peacefully.

Apparently, a couple of days before, Mum had noticed something untoward in my right eye. A “kind of light” I remember her saying – something that looked like a reflection in my pupil. This was the catalyst that made her question the sight in my right eye.

The next day, Friday, we visited our family GP, Dr Macauliffe in Wembley. Bless him – he had delivered me and was always there for us. He thought he knew what the problem was, but as it was not possible for an appointment with an Ophthalmologist until Monday, he told my parents that it was probably a cataract so as not to worry them too much over the weekend.

I remember sitting in Mr Yeates’ waiting room on the Monday morning– the furniture, the paintings on the wall even the smell of the room. It seemed like forever (not that I even knew why I was there at the time!) He told Mum and Dad his diagnosis – Retina Blastoma – but wanted his colleague to confirm it. The next appointment was not until after lunch – the diagnosis was confirmed.

That night I was taken to PMH and left. I remember crying all night – in those days parents were not allowed to stay with their child – and visiting hours were set times. I can only imagine what Mum and Dad went through, leaving their five year old in a strange place, screaming for them as they left the hospital, not knowing if they would even see her alive again.

The doctor did not know at that stage how far back the tumor had grown. I was completely oblivious to all of this of course – all I knew was that they had left me in this little room, all alone. The nurses were awful and told me I was very naughty to be crying all the time – all except, the ‘Yellow Nurse’ (so named because she wore a yellow uniform!!) I think in hindsight, she must have been an enrolled nurse or a nursing assistant and she was just lovely. Of course she was my favourite and I remember waiting for her to come every day.

Each day, after the operation, I would longingly wait for visiting hours, watching down the length of the ward to the double swinging doors with a porthole window, waiting to see Mum and Dad’s face until the bell sounded for visiting hours. It was so very exciting as they would always bring me a little present – I still had no idea what had happened to me at that stage but I can remember crying every time when Mum, Dad and my big brother Rob left again to go home. What they must have gone through, especially in those early days must have been heart wrenching. Much worse for them than it was for me I’m sure.

After my stay in hospital Mum was to bathe the raw socket each day – I didn’t like it – it hurt – by this time, obviously I must have known what had happened. I remember asking Mum why God chose me to have this done and Mum replying “because God knows that you are a brave little girl”. After that I didn’t complain too much – I didn’t want to prove God wrong!!! Smart Mother I had!!!

There are so many memories – the constant trips to the specialist for check ups, sitting in the waiting room for what seemed like an eternity with my eyes closed while the drops did their job, the perfectly groomed, grey haired nurse/receptionist who always remembered me and gave me sweets, then finally when the pupil had dilated sufficiently, sitting in Mr Yeates darkened room and the sound of the little instrument he used to examine my ‘good’ eye. Then, on the drive home, I would get to wear Dad’s sunglasses because the sunshine through the car window was very uncomfortable on the eye with the dilated lense!!! As the years progressed it improved of course, the drops not lasting anywhere near as long and also not taking as long to work initially!!! The checkups lasted until I was 35 years old!! Mr Yeates wasn’t taking any chances!!! He certainly was an amazing man!

I don’t remember being really phased about it all until I started school. Kids can be so cruel!! The taunts and mockery began – even though Mr Powell did an excellent job making the eyes, obviously over the years the techniques have improved so much and it is now much less conspicuous. Apart from all of that though, the fact of only having one eye never had a detrimental effect on my growth and development. In fact I believe it has made me a much stronger person and very aware of just how lucky I am.

During my childhood there were many humorous happenings, obviously too many to share with you now, but I remember once at my dancing class, (I would have been about 10 years old at the time) we were doing flips across the hall and my eye came out and went spinning across the floor to the opposite side of the room, coming to rest under a chair upon which sat a little girl. She looked down as I raced over to retrieve it, pulled up her legs and screamed “Eeeeeeeh – an eye!!!!!!!” I was mortified and ran and hid in the changing rooms!!!!

As an adult now, having the ability to laugh at myself and to be open and honest about it all is a blessing. I taught swimming for many years in later life – on the first day of the series, it was mandatory to sit the children down and chat with them about safety etc. The little ones would look up at me as I was speaking and inevitably one of them would ask what was wrong with my eye. When I explained, they would ask a few questions, then say, when can we go in the water?? Being open and honest right from the outset was always the best policy I found.

One little girl once commented that perhaps someone else should test her at the end of the series as I could only see half of what she could do!!!!!! On another occasion, I was wondering why people at the pool were staring at me – a couple of hours later I discovered that the right hand lens of my sunglasses had fallen out!!! Very embarrassing!!!

I believe I have been truly blessed and am just so lucky to be where I am today. To have had the support of wonderful parents, friends, family and doctors over the years and now to have Paul and Jenny looking after my eye is just the icing on the cake!! What an incredible pair they are – dedicated, compassionate and so very talented. My heartfelt thanks to you for being who you are and congratulations on all the good work you do both here and overseas. You truly do make the world a better place.