Better Than 20/20: One Veteran's Journey To See Again

By: Brittany Bernadini
“My vision now is 20/10, and the human record of vision is 20/8.”
Matthew Gates, a Marine Corps Veteran and student at Fitchburg State University, was lucky enough to have his vision surgically fixed when he thought his injuries were beyond repaired. He was born with bad eyesight, and things only got worse when he was injured on duty as a Marine, leaving him almost completely blind in his left eye.
“My eyesight didn’t start becoming bad until I was three, that’s the point when I needed glasses. It wasn’t terrible but gradually, it surpassed in the wrong direction. It got worse than my father’s vision around 15.”
Gates sees “visual snow” which is similar to TV static. Dots, color pigments, etc., around in his vision. This added with his bad vision. But with heavy prescription glasses he was able to see 20/20.
I wanted to learn more about his experience, so I sat down with Gates and tried to understand his situation as best I could, without actually going through it myself.
Q: “What happened anatomy wise with your eye when you were injured?”
A: “The actual lens of my eye, got a mark on it,  the actual tissue was scarred. And there are more details that go into it that than I understand myself, because I was told when I was in the middle of needing medical attention. So all I knew was I had damage to my eye, and I had to go to a naval hospital, because that’s what we had out there. Basically after everything was done I had my eye closed for quite a while, and I had my eye patch on and then when they told me to take that off, there was this big blotch in my vision. Basically a big black area in my left eye’s visual field.”
As a result his eyes were extremely light sensitive. He was given special prescription glasses to use in the sun. But even things like fluorescent lights were too bright at times.
Q: “So with that blotch how did things look to you?”
A: “The best way to describe it is putting one hand in front of your eye almost all the way, and looking straight, you see a black blotch, and there is TV static going on during it because of the visual snow. The blotch messed with my depth perception, because I couldn’t really get a good sense of where things were in space. If I wanted to be precise with things, like my artwork, it was tough.”
Waking up and seeing this black void space was a constant reminder of the tragedy that had happened to him while he was on active duty. Imagine a nagging flea that would never go away no matter how hard he tried. That was what Gates dealt with every day. I first met Gates when his vision was already like this, no more than a couple of months after the incident. He had never really seen what I looked like. That was until he got an almost miraculous call almost 4 years later.
“I was contacted [by the Department of Veteran Affairs] about getting the damaged eye fixed, and then they realized my eyesight was really bad to begin with, so they would need to correct both eyes to complement each other.”
Q: “Were you scared about going through with the surgery?”
A: “I wanted to give it a shot, but I was worried about what other people would think because a lot of people get anxious thinking about surgery with something as fragile as your eyes. And if you mess with them there’s possibilities you can’t get your vision back. But I was more confident with trying to go for it, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t scared shitless about it.”
The surgery was no more than a few hours long. The Lasik requires the patient to be fully awake. His eyes were numbed but he had to stare into a bright laser for a prolonged period of time. And the results were not immediate. It took about 2 days before Gates was able to see any results.
Q: “Can you tell me how different things look now after the surgery?
A: “Everything looks a lot more vibrant. My vision now is 20/10, and the human record of vision is 20/8. Which is pretty amazing, not only can I see out of my  left eye, but I can see very well out of it. With glasses I wasn’t able to achieve any more than 20/20 before.”
Q: “What was really noticeable to you initially when you got your vision?”
A: “I wasn’t able to tell about the day afterwards, everything was all blotchy. But things started coming back in bluish fades. But the next day, I woke up and I was looking up at the ceiling, and it didn’t hit me at first because I was still waking up all dazed. Then I lifted my hand up, and I closed my right eye, and then my left eye, and in my eye that I should saw a blotch, it was gone. Everything was extremely vibrant. It was almost over stimulating.”
Everything was suddenly more colorful and defined for Gates, like seeing the world for the very first time. The first time I saw him after the surgery, he met me in Thompson Hall. His eyes were much more open than they normally were, darting in every direction taking in the scene. I could see a small smile here and there when he looked around. For me, his girlfriend, it was a very emotional moment. At one point, he cupped my face in his hands just studying the way I looked. I could not fathom how it must have felt like seeing me for the first time after 3 years of knowing each other.  He went for a checkup the day after and was told that he had 20/10 vision after taking an eye exam.
“People’s expressions I can pick up a lot better now, movement seems a lot more defined, I can actually see what’s happening, when before it was more of a blob movement. I’m able to see more like, even just the way people walk now,  I’m noticing different ways people are walking.  And this is odd and kind of weird to say, but specifically with my parents in the most respectful manner possible, I can see more of their age, I never really noticed beforehand, I never noticed how much they’ve been aging.”
This Lasik surgery is still relatively new, and Gates is one of the few hundreds of people being watched for progress. But within a miraculous 3 days, Gates was given better vision than he was born with. The long suffering and lingering effects were now gone. The first few days after I met Matthew, I asked if his vision could be fixed. He had told me sadly it could not be. And now 4 years after his incident, his vision is better than ever.