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Me and a friend, Ron, on a bike camping trip on Vancouver Island (1982)
Moving On

When I left Stajen's and Shazeen's home in the summer of '78, I hadn't fully recovered from schizophrenia. I still hallucinated, although rarely. The strangeness of the night sky had dialed back, and I still suffered from fatigue at times. I probably wasn't well enough to work full time, and fortunately I didn't have to. Sherry regularly received lump sums from a trust fund, enough for us to live modestly without having to work. Before I moved out of the doctor's house, I stopped collecting welfare.

The first thing Sherry and I did was travel in our van that I had converted into a camper. We drove across Canada to the East Coast and then down to Boston, stopping along the way to visit friends and relatives. Then we drove back to Alberta through the Northern States.

After our trip we settled in Sterling, a village south of Lethbridge, and stayed in a house that Sherry's mother owned. Sherry and I weren't about to fritter our time, or our money for that matter, so we attended the University of Lethbridge.

When we weren't going to school, we travelled. On the Christmas break, we drove down through the States, stopping in Yellowstone Park, San Francisco, Las Vegas and San Diego. We got as far as Tijuana, Mexico, where we spent a day browsing shops before returning. On the spring break we drove to Victoria, B.C. We liked it so much we decided to move there in the summer of '79 after we finished the school year.

We rented an apartment in Victoria but later bought a townhouse. We sold the van, and Sherry bought a used Volkswagen Jetta while I purchased a motorcycle.

We enrolled in courses at Camosun College. I had become interested in biochemistry at Lethbridge University, so I followed it up with courses at the college.

Although we didn't need to, we occasionally worked part-time. I tried landscaping but found my energy was too unreliable to do constant physical labour. For a while I worked part-time in a fishing survey, a laid-back job where I hung out at piers waiting for fishermen to dock so I could record their salmon catches.

A year after Sherry and I moved to Victoria, our relationship began to unravel. In May 1981, after being together for three years, we agreed to split. Sherry wanted my motorcycle and my half of the townhouse. I didn't argue. After all, I didn't pay for any of it. I left with $1,500.

I finished my second year of biochemistry at Camosun College only to realize I didn't enjoy working in a lab. Anyway, I couldn't afford to continue to go to school.

Victoria had a lot to offer, such as a temperate climate and a relaxed pace, but it was short on job opportunities. I had no luck in finding permanent work after I moved out, so when my money ran out I had to go on social assistance. I hadn't completely recovered from schizophrenia, but at least my problems with fatigue had finally disappeared. I was now capable of working full time, but I couldn't find work.

Then in the spring of '82, I got lucky. Using my college courses and my experience as a medical assistant, I was able to land a job with an ophthalmologist, Dr. D.P. North. I was to replace his ophthalmic assistant who planned to quit. Before leaving, she would train me for three months.

Initially I did little more than take patient histories and run machines to test patients' eyes. To help bring me up to speed, I took a home study course for ophthalmic assistants. As I became more knowledgeable, I was groomed to assist in eye surgery. During the first couple of operations I became nauseous and had to step out of the room briefly for some "air," but I soon got used to the sight of blood and stuff.

One of the operations that Dr. North performed was cataract surgery, replacing the crystalline lens of the eye with an artificial implant. I recall one such operation that he performed on a patient in his seventies. After the doctor sedated him, he secured his upper and lower eyelids with instruments to leave his eye wide open – and protruding rather grotesquely, I thought – and then began performing surgery on him.

Suddenly in the middle of the operation, the patient came to, and alarmingly, he extended a gnarled hand toward his staring eyeball, a scene so ghoulish that I stared in disbelief. Then the assistant and I hurriedly restrained his arm while the doctor administered more sedative. The operation was successful, although the patient died of a heart attack a few weeks later.

The ophthalmologist also did corneal transplants, replacing a damaged or diseased cornea with a donor cornea. The operation was essentially simple. Using a trephine – an instrument that made a circular cut like a cookie-cutter – the doctor removed the corneal disc of the patient's eye. Then using the trephine again, this time on a donor eyeball, he removed a donor corneal disc. The donor disc was then sutured into the patient's eye. After one such operation, Dr. North gave me the donor eyeball, sans cornea, to play with. Using a scalpel, I tried carefully cutting into the eyeball to examine its delicate inner structures, but instead I reduced the eyeball to a gelatinous, useless mess. I could well appreciate Dr. North's precise and steady hand.

While I was happy to be gainfully employed, I was thrilled to have my energy back. After learning of an outdoor club in Victoria, I became an ardent member. It felt great to again be pushing my body to its limits, whether hiking up a mountain or biking down the coast of Vancouver Island. My favourite outing was when we spent a long weekend backpacking to Tsusiat Falls on the West Coast Trail.

Then just when things were going well, my job abruptly ended. After my three-month training period, the assistant I was to replace changed her mind and decided to stay. I was let go. I remained in Victoria for a time, looking for work, but to no avail. So I moved back to Calgary.


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