Connie Parke used to live in a two-stoplight town in Montana.
Yet, even in a place she knew so well, she started getting lost.
Over five months back in 2003, her vision in both eyes got so bad that she couldn’t work, couldn’t drive and was accidentally setting fires when she tried to light the antique gas stove in the old miner’s cabin she shared with her husband.
“I lost my sight so fast that I was hurting myself,” said Parke, now 57.
An eye doctor in Montana told her she had detached retinas and there was nothing he could do.
“I pretty much stopped going to doctors at that point,” Parke said.
Braille, a cane and a guide dog
Distraught, Parke decided she better learn how to live as a blind woman. There was no school for visually impaired people near her, so she and her husband moved to Colorado, where their daughter lived.
Parke worked hard in blind school in Denver and learned how to use a cane, read Braille and get around walking and riding buses.
Even so, depression overwhelmed her at first and no one would give her a job.
“I worked all my life, but nobody could see past the cane,” Parke said.
She was used to being an independent woman who worked hard and cared for her family.
Then, thankfully grandchildren started arriving. Altogether, Parke has five granddaughters and three grandsons. She and her husband also took in her great-niece and nephew when their parents needed help. And they co-parent three granddaughters in their home with their son. The children brought joy and purpose to replace Parke’s hopelessness.
She couldn’t see the babies, but got to know and love each one individually. As she learned to do in blind school, she mapped each of their faces with her hands. She felt their dimples, the shapes of their noses, the space on their foreheads and on their eyelids. She called it “the touch of sight.”
She and her husband also got a boxer puppy and trained Talulah May to be Parke’s service dog.
Parke carved out a life as a blind woman at the center of a busy family.
A stunning discovery
Fast forward to 2018. Parke’s husband saw his primary care doctor and mentioned that he was having some trouble with his eyes. The doctor urged him to see an ophthalmologist. Then Parke’s husband said his wife was the one who really needed help with her eyes. The doctor encouraged Parke to go for a checkup at the UCHealth Sue Anschutz-Rodgers Eye Center at the Anschutz Medical Campus.
She reluctantly agreed and there, she met Dr. Jeffrey SooHoo, who is an assistant professor in the ophthalmology department at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
SooHoo examined Parke’s eyes and found that she was indeed almost totally blind. Even so, SooHoo had a surprising diagnosis for Parke. He didn’t see any signs of complications like a detached retina. Instead, he found that Parke had one of the most common problems for adults with vision problems: cataracts.
And he thought surgery could help her.
Parke was skeptical that she’d ever see again and hesitated to have surgery.
Still, she had little to lose. Her vision was so bad that she could only see some light and a kaleidoscope of geometric shapes.
So, she scheduled cataract surgery on her right eye for Nov. 12. The surgery is usually relatively straightforward and quick. It often only takes about 15 minutes for each eye and is the most common surgery performed in the U.S.
SooHoo sent Parke home with a patch over her eye and instructed her to come back the next day.
When Parke returned, the nurse pulled off the patch and Parke burst into tears.
“I could see her face. I saw her wrinkles and her eyelashes,” Parke said. “They started examining my eyes and had me look at the eye chart and I could read 20/20. I was speechless and in tears.”
Parke went from skeptical to ecstatic.
“He’s my hero,” Parke said of SooHoo. “I honestly didn’t believe he was going to give me sight. I was so afraid. It’s a miracle.”
Thrilled with the results in her first eye, Parke scheduled the surgery for her second eye as soon as she could, Nov. 26.
“I had total faith. I couldn’t wait to get the second one done. It was a miracle,” Parke said. “I call them my bionic eyes.”
From blind to 20/20
SooHoo said he’s used to having patients marvel at their results. But, he’s rarely had a patient experience such a dramatic change overnight like Parke did.
He had been careful not to promise perfect results. So the outcome was a joy for patient and doctor alike.
“I was just as surprised as she was. She has completely normal vision now. It’s literally 20/20,” SooHoo said.
“I have a lot of meaningful patient experiences, but this is one that really stands out in terms of making a difference in someone’s life,” he said. “The relationship between a physician and a patient is really powerful when they trust you. We go to school for a long time to do what we do. There are difficult days too. But this is one of those sustaining and transformative experiences that reminds you why you do what you do and why it’s such a privilege.”
Along with removing the cataracts, SooHoo placed what are known as intraocular lens or IOLs into both of Parke’s eyes.
“They are made of plastic and stay in the eye forever,” he said.
SooHoo said it’s a shame Parke lived with her cataracts longer than necessary. He urges anyone with poor vision to keep seeking help if they get a diagnosis with a poor prognosis.
“Make sure you do your due diligence and get a number of different opinions,” he said.
While cataract surgery can be done in most places around the country, SooHoo said he loves practicing medicine at a cutting-edge eye center.
“We are used to seeing unusual cases. People send us stuff they don’t understand. We have access to an interdisciplinary crew of experts from a variety of fields. I can get five people to put their heads together on any cases. You can’t get that most places. That’s the power of a big academic health system,” SooHoo said.
Following her surgeries, Parke is sensitive to light, so she keeps sunglasses handy. She also sometimes sees purple halos that she finds quite beautiful. SooHoo said those side effects should diminish over time.
“She couldn’t see for 15 years and her brain is getting adjusted to having a new piece of plastic in the eye,” he said.
‘The best is yet to come’
Tears of joy and astonishment often stream from Parke’s eyes.
Her vision is like a new toy. She loves noticing the simplest things like the beauty of an evergreen branch outside her window, a bird bobbing around on it or the pattern in a floor tile.
When she walks out of her house, she reflexively reaches for her cane, then puts it back. Talulah’s black service vest still sits ready by the door, but Parke no longer needs a service dog. Talulah kept Parke safe for years and now gets to enjoy relaxed walks, couch surfing and snuggling with her family.
Parke meanwhile finds herself drinking in the faces of her children and grandchildren.
“I remember having my first granddaughter and that sweet, chubby face. But I never saw the younger ones,” Parke said.
Seeing her own face, on the other hand, was a shock and somewhat depressing. In her mind, Parke still imagined she looked exactly the same as she did in her early 40s. She’s a tiny spitfire who’s youthful and full of energy. But seeing some gray hairs and wrinkles in the mirror has been hard.
She also had never seen the home that her husband picked out in Aurora and, when her vision returned, she didn’t like seeing dust or walls in need of fresh paint.
“The first two weeks after my right eye surgery, I scrubbed every heater vent in the house. I made everybody nuts. Not everything in life is beautiful,” Parke said.
But most things in life are stunning, especially her family members.
Parke is incredibly grateful to her daughter, Barbara Urban, 37, who patiently helped her mom move to Colorado and adjust to being blind. Parke’s husband, Rob, has been equally supportive. Connie and Rob now dream of moving back to a more rural location. They’d love to find some land with a small lake.
“I want to wake up and fish. I want to wake up and kayak somewhere in Colorado,” Parke said.
Even when she was blind, Parke was game for adventures. She’d go out kayaking in Cherry Creek Reservoir with Rob. He’d paddle nearby and she’d navigate by following his voice.
Now, the two dream of starting up a Christmas tree farm. Rob has a big beard and a twinkle in his eyes and would eagerly serve as the resident Santa Claus on the farm.
The couple can’t wait, too, to do more traveling. Connie was always willing to go on adventures with her family. But, it was tough not to see the beauty that the rest of the crew was drinking in.
“My husband took me to Yellowstone and he saw bears and all those animals. And I saw nothing,” Parke said.
The Parkes have relatives in Oregon and also took two family trips to the coast in recent years.
“I really want to do those trips all over again,” Parke said. “I want to see the waves and fish and clam.
“The best is yet to come.”