The Way I See It: Heather Pfeifer

We introduce this series to give our writers an opportunity to share their own experiences and stories with you. Each one will offer a different perspective of the phrase, “the way I see it.” Even after vision loss, Heather Pfeifer is determined to continue setting a path for herself. 

“The way I see it.” Think about that phrase for a minute, no one else in the world sees exactly what you see. Your perception of the world around you is shaped by what you perceive through your very own eyes, eyes that belong to you and you alone. Therefore, there are as many different views of life as there are eyes on this planet. Vision is the key that unlocks our world.

But what happens if your eyes become impaired? Do you see the world differently? Does the world see you differently? The answer is a resounding, yes. Vision loss leads to changes and challenges, and through these experiences, it leads to growth. My journey to move forward with vision impairment  has taught me to refocus my life vision, which is my hopes and my dreams.

I developed a vision impairment four years ago as a result of a side effect for a medication. My retinas were both damaged leading to permanent loss of visual acuity and scattered blind spots in my central vision. A word about the retina: if the eyes are the window to the soul, then the retina is the window to the brain. Everything we see is absorbed by the retina as data that is sent to the brain for interpretation, via the optic nerve. When the retina is damaged, the data sent to the brain is incomplete resulting in an incomplete image. Less resolution, less sharpness, less brightness, less detail and overall, less image. 

I miss details in plain sight, such as the details required to recognize the faces of my family and friends at a distance of more than a few feet away. My brain is ready and willing, it just doesn’t receive all the information it needs to create a complete picture. The brain should  never be underestimated, however, as it can fill in much of the missing information automatically. I can see, but I just don’t see quickly. I see the forest; but I just can’t count the trees.  

My vision loss was gradual over four years. The changes I experienced were subtle at first, and my ophthalmologist attributed them to the aging process and a previous injury to my left retina. As time went on, the changes in my vision began to interfere with my everyday activities. I was baffled as I desperately tried to understand why I could no longer efficiently perform some tasks that were once a part of my daily routine, such as reading or working on the computer. I felt isolated, misunderstood and my mind became filled with self-doubt. My job performance began to suffer and my relationships became strained under the weight of my struggle.

At the time of my vision loss, I enjoyed a 20-year career as a registered nurse.  I spent 13 of those years working with oncology patients. I was inspired daily by the courage of my patients. I admired their bravery as they conquered their fears of the unknown by living in the moment and cherishing each day as if it could be their last. I would later draw on the experiences I shared with these individuals when I faced my own fear of the unknown. 

I was devastated when my declining vision prevented me from safely continuing my nursing career. I was forced to resign from the position I had enjoyed for so long. I didn’t know what to do. It was then that I recalled my time spent at the cancer clinic. I remembered watching in awe as my patients continued to move forward with their lives, even as their cancer’s robbed them of their sense of control in life. In that moment, I realized that I too would need to surrender control and let go of the life I knew in order to move forward in life with a vision impairment.

Though my eyesight remains faulty today, it is precisely my faulty eyes that have taught me to see the world in new ways, ways that I may not have discovered otherwise. As I continue to surrender to my fear of the unknown, I gain the clarity I need to see new paths emerging in front of me. The paths are scary and unfamiliar, but they are paths nonetheless, rather than the dead-end that I had feared was ahead of me.

What I have lost in sight, I continue to gain in vision. Despite the unknown, I look forward to what the future holds as I embark on my journey to find meaning in a life interrupted by visual impairment. It makes me sad to think about the things I don’t see any more, but it is my vision going forward to find ways to focus on what I can see, not just with my eyes, but with my heart and soul.

And that’s the way I see it.