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Melissa T. Shultz Headshot

Rules for Happiness

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My grandmother lived to be 107, having won what appeared to my family to be the genetic lottery. Several weeks ago, on the morning I was scheduled to take my son back to college, I wondered if the genes had skipped my generation.

It's 5 a.m. and something is obstructing my left eye. I rub it hard -- too hard, and when I stop, it looks as if a camera has just flashed in front of me. I sit for a few minutes. Close both my eyes. Take a few deep breaths.

The spot is still there. I tell myself it will go away and is just another sign of aging. By the time my son and I arrive in California, the only thing that's clear is that I need to see an eye doctor.

"I can fix the injury with drops," the doctor tells me. "But there's something else."

"Something else?" I ask.

"Yes," he says, "something else."

He shines a light in my eye, again and again -- dilates it, looks several more times.

"How long are you here for?" he asks.

"Two days," I answer.

"Can you stay longer?"

I pause.

"I guess," I said. "What did you find?"

"Swelling of your optic nerve."

"Can't it wait till I get home? I ask.

"It's hard to find neuro-opthalmologists, and harder still to get an appointment with one," he says, turning away to write notes in my file.

I have a sort of out-of-body experience -- I am curled up and reading a book, taking an afternoon nap, swinging on a swing. I am anywhere but here.

After what seems like forever, the doctor turns back around to face me, and we talk briefly about my medical history. When he realizes I'm a breast cancer survivor, he tells me that I'll need imaging of my brain to see if the cancer has spread. He thinks aloud about insurance and out-of-network costs, and the potential for it to be very complicated, and in the end, he says he will coordinate with my family practitioner to find me someone back home.

Adrenaline is a wonderful thing. It gets me through the next day -- through the packing, the driving, the unpacking, the goodbyes, and more driving. So too is dumb luck -- I end up flying home first class. The last time I did I was on my honeymoon 21 years ago when my new husband and I were about to sit in economy class seats previously occupied by someone who had vomited, and we were ushered forward, with complimentary glasses of wine.

I test my peripheral vision by keeping tabs on my business traveler seat-mate who has clearly done this first-class thing many times before. When he pulls out his tiny, first class drink tray, I follow suit, because I have no idea how to do it otherwise. When he gets plastered early on, I pretend not to notice -- even when he blows his nose loudly and repeatedly into his serving napkins, then hands them to his unsuspecting stewardess along with his empty glasses. By mid-flight, he has eaten all his airline nuts, except his almonds, which he leaves in a small, rejected almond pile.

At the airport, when I see my husband and youngest son at the bottom of the airport escalator, I hug them for a long time. Certainly longer than a teenage boy wants to be hugged by his mother in a public place.

The next day is a blur of doctors, tests and test results. I am scared, I am happy, I am sad, I am happy. I am hungry, I am nauseous. I am thankful -- for insurance, for family, for my children, for chocolate, for mashed potatoes. I am all over the place.

Dear God:
My book has not been written.
My youngest son has not graduated from high school.
The beards on my boy's beautiful faces have not filled in.
I have so much yet to see.
God, please let me see.

Last week I stepped onto the curb outside my neighborhood Starbucks and started to pass out. It occurred to me that hitting my head on the concrete would not be a good thing and so I focused on getting inside and into a chair I spotted behind the counter. Luckily, the few words I was able to utter were understood by a very caring Starbuck's employee named Dorinda, who called 911, all-the-while patting my head, telling me she was not going to leave my side.

I ended up in the ER, where I thought about how many kind people had helped me over the last few weeks, people like Dorinda, and the woman who guided me into the MRI machine -- waiting patiently while I adjusted ever-so-slowly to the tiny space, whispering that she too had claustrophobia and acting as if I had all the time in the world; and the woman they called Nana at the lab where they took eight vials of blood, who called me sweetheart and distracted me with stories of her 12 great-grandchildren, particularly the four-year old whose butterfly hair clips she wore that day.

It's the process of finding the right doctor that's been difficult. Don't get me wrong, there have been some lovely and caring physicians along the way, physicians who were accessible, tuned-in and communicative. But there have been far more who weren't -- who made me feel as if I was on a need-to-know basis, even with my own test results. They were also disconnected from the business aspect of their practices (including how difficult it is to reach them or get an appointment in an emergency), and from each other. They didn't coordinate findings, or worse, they stopped listening after a few seconds and made quick judgments, leaving me to navigate my way through the maze. It's nothing new, as a cancer survivor I've been through it before, and I experienced it when my youngest son had a lengthy illness.

Frustrated and unsure of how to proceed, I reached out by email to someone I'd read about online -- a neuro-opthalmologist who also does research. Much to my surprise, she responded -- personally, without fanfare, and with empathy.

I've been diagnosed with nonarteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy -- it happens when the blood supply to the optic nerve is interrupted. It's basically a "stroke" of the optic nerve. I'm a tad on the young side for it, and haven't got the risk factors of diabetes, or high cholesterol, but I discovered that I was born with a particular eye anatomy that makes me more susceptible to developing the condition, also known as NAION. The event that led me to the hospital was most likely the result of the eye drops I was using, prescribed by a physician I met earlier in the process. The spot I see may never get better, time will tell, there is a relatively low chance it can happen to the other eye, time will tell this as well.

So it comes down to acceptance, of knowing I can only do so much to prevent certain things; that there are good people left in this world, helpful, caring people; and that I need to live every day with purpose. Maybe this is the secret to the long life my grandmother enjoyed -- maybe she not only had good genes, but knew this instinctively. She kept on keeping on with a smile on her face, regardless of the obstacles.

My father was fond of the quote about happiness by philosopher Immanuel Kant. I've never appreciated it more.

"Rules for happiness: something to do, someone to love, something to hope for".