As a senior ophthalmologist entering my golden years (actually well into them), I find that my predominant feeling these days is increasingly one of profound gratitude. I hope you are able to enjoy the same feelings as you look back on your life so far.
The feeling rose in my consciousness recently when I pulled a small book off a shelf in my library. It had been given to me a couple of years ago by a dear friend and my first glaucoma fellow, David Berry, MD, on the occasion of his 70th birthday (which certainly made me feel old). But it reminded me that one of the greatest benefits of our professional life, for which we have much to be grateful, is friendship.
The book is entitled Gratitude by the well-known neurologist and author, Oliver Sacks, MD. Sadly, it proved his last book, written as he was dying of liver metastasis from an ocular melanoma. What I want to share with you today, however, is not about dying, but living, which Sacks describes so beautifully in his book.
He was born in 1933 in England to physician parents and grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family. The discovery of his sexual orientation as a young man led him to leave his tight family unit after graduation from medical school and come to the New World, where he completed his neurology residency at UCLA. Life was not easy for him in his early days, as he searched for meaning in his existence and nearly succumbed to an amphetamine addiction in the 1960s. But a move to New York and the discovery of his ability to relate stories of his unusual patients gave him the fulfillment he sought. His well-known book, Awakenings, put him on the map (The New York Times once referred to him as “the poet laureate of medicine”) and he would eventually publish 13 books, including one of my favorites: The Island of the Colorblind.
After a 2005 diagnosis of ocular melanoma, he lost sight in that eye following treatment, but continued to live a robust and fulfilling life for nearly a decade. In 2014, however, within days of completing his memoir On the Move, he learned that his cancer had metastasized to his liver and that his days were numbered. But this only caused him to recognize, all the more, the beauty of every new day and to make the most of each one — a lesson for each of us.
One of the joys he experienced in those days, while he underwent immunotherapy, was a visit to the lemur colony at Duke University (for “a little fun”). That reminded me again of my many reasons for gratitude. It was a visit to that same facility in the 1970s, and a mutual interest in an unusual form of buphthalmos among some of the lemurs, that led to my lifelong friendship with Bob Ritch, MD.
So, as we enter these special years of our lives, we cannot only look back with profound gratitude for so much that we have been given and for the opportunity to give back, but we can also look forward to our next (and maybe most exciting) chapter.
Dr. Sacks expressed this most eloquently in his final book: “I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.”
May it be so for all of us.