This taut yet lyrical memoir tells of the author’s experience with a baffling illness poised to take her sight, and gives a deeply felt meditation on vulnerability and on what it means to lose the faith you had and find something better.
One day at the end of 2009, during a routine eye exam that Nora Gallagher nearly skipped, her doctor said, “Darn.” Her right optic nerve was inflamed, the cause unknown, a condition that if left untreated would cause her to lose her sight. And so began her departure from ordinary life and her travels in what she calls Oz, the land of the sick. It looks like the world most of us inhabit, she tells us, except that “the furniture is slightly rearranged”: her friends can’t help her, her trusted doctors don’t know what’s wrong, and what faith she has left just won’t cover it. After a year of searching for a diagnosis and treatment, she arrives at the Mayo Clinic and finds a whole town built around Oz.
In the course of her journey, Gallagher encounters inhuman doctors, the modern medical system—in which knowledge takes fifteen years to trickle down—and the strange world that is the famous Mayo Clinic, complete with its grand piano. With unerring candor, and no sentimentality whatsoever, Gallagher describes the unexpected twists and turns of the path she took through a medical mystery and an unfathomably changing life. In doing so, she gives us a singular, luminous map of vulnerability and dark landscapes. “It’s the nature of things to be vulnerable,” Gallagher says. “The disorder is imagining we are not.”
Among the spate of new works chronicling personal experiences of illness, Gallagher's poignant reconstruction of her debilitating eye disease and baffling diagnosis over the course of nearly two years underscores the pervasive sense of powerlessness she felt at the hands of the medical system. Gallagher, who lives in Santa Barbara, Calif., is the author of several memoirs about her struggle with her Christian faith (Resurrection, et al.). Once a candidate for the Episcopal priesthood, she infuses her journey with a spiritual disorientation, beginning with the sudden discovery at age 60 of a dangerously inflamed optic nerve (a condition called optic neuritis) that could have resulted in blindness. The illness made her feel as if she "dropped out of the world lived in" and was deposited in a kind of Oz, separated from healthy people by a glass wall, where she had instantly become a part of the suffering unfortunates who she had once prayed for and regarded with patronizing sympathy. Forced to scale back her busy life, Gallagher was also terrified that the strain of taking care of her would alienate her husband of 27 years. Doped up on prednisone (steroids) and sent from specialist to specialist, she finally got a referral to the famed Rochester, Minn., Mayo Clinic, where another round of tests and exams only added layers to a mystifying journey. Gallagher does not dole out easy answers in this somber, reflective work. But she finds the humble, bracing imperative to live in the present. "Task: to be where I am."