On her 21st birthday, Pat Knapp sat in an eye doctor’s office unable to see two feet in front of her.
Her vision was gone, her blindness was caused by a rare autoimmune response she had to a defective over-the-counter cold capsule she had taken when sick. It was 1965.
“It was very frightening,” recalled Knapp.
While she regained some of her vision following that doctor’s appointment and she was able to drive for a few years after that, her eyes were permanently damaged.
For 19 years, Knapp took large doses of cortisone that were able to restore some vision in her damaged eyes, but over time the drugs were no longer effective and Knapp’s eyesight deteriorated, despite several surgeries.
She had three surgeries on her right eye and four surgeries on her left.
By the age of 69, Knapp had been blind and using a white cane for about half of her life. She was only able to distinguish between light and dark. Her husband, Lloyd Knapp, died in June. They were a team. When they would shop in local grocery stores, he would ride in the electric cart and she would walk behind him, letting him lead the way. They had been high school sweethearts in Iowa. He was serving in Vietnam when she initially lost her eyesight at age 21.
They were married 46 years.
In October, Knapp’s south Brainerd neighbor, Mary Lou Nelson, suggested she consult with eye surgeon Dr. David Sabir at Northern Eye Center to see if there was anything he could do. Knapp had seen other eye doctors in the past who said they wouldn’t operate on her eyes, that the damage and scarring were too severe and her optic nerves were likely dead.
One eye doctor told her that she could actually lose her eyes and need artificial eyes if another surgery was performed.
“I was told by everybody that it would never be fixed,” said Knapp.
But Sabir felt there was still hope. He told her he couldn’t make any promises, but he would operate on her eyes. She had severe glaucoma with cataracts; her eyes were so clouded that the cataracts were black, Sabir said.
Sabir, admittedly a bit nervous about the procedure, arranged his schedule so his only surgery that day in October was on Knapp’s left eye.
He wasn’t sure how long it would take or if any complications would arise. Her eyes were too damaged to allow him to use a laser, and he instead performed the delicate cutting by hand. He surgically implanted an artificial lens and a glaucoma filter and removed scar tissue.
The next day, when it was time to remove the eye patch, Knapp could see Sabir waving his hand in front of her. It was an emotional experience for both of them.
“I cried like a baby on his shoulder,” Knapp said. “And he cried, too.”
On Nov. 4 Knapp underwent surgery on her right eye. The day after this surgery her vision was 20/300 in her right eye, and 20/250 in her left eye.
By Dec. 20, her follow-up visit, her vision was 20/80 in her right eye and 20/60 in her left eye. Sabir said her eyes will continue to heal for up to six months following surgery. At some point Knapp will likely be able to become fitted for a pair of glasses and may achieve perfect 20/20 vision with glasses. She currently wears sunglasses because her eyes are sensitive to light.
Knapp wrapped up her white cane and gave it to Sabir as a gift. She no longer needs it, thanks to him.
Knapp feels blessed to be able to see again.
“People ask me how I feel, and I don’t know how to put it into words,” she said. “It’s like being reborn. Everything is new, fresh and exciting. I feel blessed.”
Knapp learned how to live without her sight, and she’s finding humor in her new life. She went to her closet and was looking at all the outfits she had always worn matched up together. She found it amusing at how many of her outfits didn’t exactly match much at all.
Soon after she regained her sight, she noticed a blue jay sitting on the roof of her neighbor’s house. She was tickled to sit and watch the bird, something she hadn’t been able to do for decades.
Knapp always had help from store employees when she shopped, and she always appreciated their help. But for the first time in December, she went shopping at a big chain store by herself. It was an amazing sight, to look at all the items on the store shelves.
“If you followed me around the stores, you’d laugh,” Knapp said with a grin.
Many people ask her what her late husband would have thought about the return of her vision.
“He would have said, ‘How come we didn’t meet him (Sabir) sooner?’” Knapp said. “He’d be so happy.”
Sabir said it’s important to always get a second opinion.
“Whatever the diagnosis, it’s not worth giving up,” said Sabir.
For three weeks after her husband died, Knapp sat alone in their home and cried. She did later get help.
Lakes Area Interfaith Caregivers volunteers came into her home and helped read her mail to her, for example. But those first few weeks after his death made her painfully aware of how much she relied on her husband. She believes she regained her eyesight when she did for a reason.
“God works in mysterious ways,” said Knapp. “My husband was my eyes for 35 years, and after he died, my neighbor recommended Dr. Sabir.”
Knapp said she doesn’t know where life will lead her now. She turns 70 in May, and she could possibly drive again someday. She recently bought a computer and is learning how to use it.
“Watch out for Pat,” Knapp said with a laugh.
JODIE TWEED, a former Brainerd Dispatch reporter, is a freelance writer who contributes stories for several regional and national publications. She and her husband and their three daughters live in Pequot Lakes.