Whenever people start a conversation about which of the five senses is their favorite, I’m baffled because there’s only one that really matters to me. My sight.
I’m not a foodie and could go without eating if there was a pill to replace food. I do like hearing, but there are a lot of annoying things that come with that. Smelling is 50-50 to me, and I will admit that parts of touch are important. But nothing comes close to seeing.
Relatively speaking, I had a happy and normal childhood. My family had a very small house in Bridgeton, Missouri, we played in the street with friends, and walked to school. My first job, at age ten, was stamping canned goods with a clanky price stamper at a little food market behind my house. (My pay was in candy—no problem there.)
The Clark family moved to a bit nicer area as my father’s painting business became more successful. You could even say, upper middle class. I had a pretty normal life at the beginning of my teens.
Then, in October ’73, when I was 13, everything changed in a flash. My best friend and I were in the woods shooting at a makeshift target when a pellet shattered in front of me and a good bit of it hit me in the face, especially in my right eye.
My memory is vivid of looking at a wooden fort built on the tree line edge as my vision slowly disappeared as the eye filled with blood. That was the last day I saw out of that eye. But there was a lot of other drama that went along with that — many surgeries, many nights in the hospital and ultimately a couple of years of additional surgeries, experiments, and other traumatic situations. For example, I had a long needle stuck through my cheekbone up and behind my eye to essentially kill the optic nerve with alcohol. That hurt. And then, finally, the eye was removed, replaced with a glass eye, and ditched the patch that had been on my face for two years. At 15, my childhood was completely over. There had been learnings that hospitals stay open at night and on weekends. I knew pain that could cause dark thoughts and understood how precious life is. There were people seen who were far worse off than me and I was actually lucky to still have the one eye.
Never – not once – did I feel sorry for myself or think of the accident as anything but a positive shift for me.
Since I wasn’t a kid anymore, my time was spent creating a car wash business in my driveway, doing odd jobs, and making money painting neighbors’ garage doors and so forth. At 16, my CJ5 Jeep became a snow plow business, and in the summer, we sealed asphalt driveways with nasty-smelling tar. I hired my friends (and fired some of them, too). At 19, I became a working partner at MMECO, a distributor of Ingersoll-Rand and Gardner Denver’s air compressors and other business equipment. I bought 37% of the company with the insurance money from losing my eye.
My partners were older and more seasoned and had excellent training in sales. I learned a lot from them about servicing customers and closing deals, but honestly, I had as much business experience as they did and probably had a better idea of how to actually make money. At MMECO we had a good partnership, and just a few years later, Bob Luby, CEO of Luby Equipment Services, bought my stock as he had always thought of the company as a potential family business and for me, it was always a pit stop. I’m grateful for my learnings there from good partners and good people, but also learned what I didn’t want to do and what to do to get my heartbeat going. My real dream was to be in the architecture and construction business.
As a child in elementary school, I watched out the window as the HQ for then start-up Ozark Airlines was built from the ground up. In the fourth grade it was the most fascinating thing to me. Every day after school, a group of us went straight to the job site and explored, and then I went home and talked about these job site tours with my father. These were the first real conversations had with my Dad, and that led to learning about architecture and him giving me books about various architects and engineering. I loved design, doing renderings, drafting and developing perspective images, and eventually studying engineering. Eyesight was the essential vehicle for all of this.
When starting Clayco in 1984, it didn’t take long for me to realize that general contracting was a far cry from anything I was interested in doing. Soon after we created a niche for design-build—”the Art and Science of Building.” My vision for Clayco in the very early days was to be fully integrated, do development, and go directly to clients and solve their most complicated problems.
My vision, my eye for fashion, architecture, art and beauty, my love of travel, scenery, and mountains –everything required sight.
I’ve not taken sight for granted, but would say that until the last five years, it was not top of mind for me. Wearing glasses has always been a fixture, even before they were needed, to protect my one eye.
But about five years ago, some alarming news came my way that even at an early age, my eye was developing a cataract right in the middle of the lens, in the center of the pupil. The doctor said that was an unfortunate place for it to begin, but that there may be time to deal with it because cataracts develop differently in everyone. Mine actually developed pretty quickly.
In the last couple of years, multiple doctors were consulted and gave various advice. One doctor said it clearly—it would be obvious when it needed to be dealt with. Cataract surgery is rather common now. It’s a fairly simple procedure and is highly successful. But also, experts said when you only have one eye, you should wait as long as you can, and there is a risk anytime they cut into your eyeball.
It is a given that I’ve gotten a little crazier every month about the whole idea of needing the surgery, but at some point, in the last year and a half, my vision had deteriorated very rapidly. In the last few months, I would have been defined as legally blind. Reading road signs was impossible, and the car was wrecked while driving at night in the rain.
Obviously, there was a lot of research completed and lots of different experts seen. A couple of friends, including Dr. David Caplin in St. Louis, voluntarily did some research to help me find the best cataract surgeon in the country. That turned out to be Dr. David Chang.
In addition to being one of the leading experts in the field of suture-less and microscopic small incision cataract surgery, he is also an amazing human being. He has been a teacher, mentor and somewhat famous philanthropic partner to the Himalayan Cataract Project. One of the best books I’ve ever read, which has been recommended on my blog, is “Second Suns” by David Oliver Relin – the incredible story of Dr. Sunduk Ruit and Dr. Geoff Tabin, who joined forces to create an organization that is literally transforming millions of lives by curing blindness and other conditions in Nepal, Bhutan, other places in the Himalaya and now Africa.
In early December 2022, Dr. Chang told me I was a good candidate for success and that the time was now. There could be no more waiting, as the surgery could become more complex and difficult later, and for all practical purposes, everyday tasks had become impossible.
The date was set for January 10 and the calendar cleared for a month to have time to heal. Five weeks were spent preparing for the absolute unthinkable outcome. My “seeing things” became the focus. Looking through all my photos and organizing them, I conducted a mock death and cleaned up all my estate planning, my collections of books and art and designated where they’d be distributed, and went through all my files and essentially made myself completely crazy.
At my early December visit and consultation at Dr. Chang’s office in Palo Alto, there was comfort the moment I walked through the door. The office hums with activity and is well-staffed with a group of super-friendly, overly competent professional team members. You definitely get a sense of a highly functioning team – a good sign. There was a lengthy and comforting consultation with Dr. Chang himself, in which he answered every question, and hopefully, the beginning of a long-term friendship was founded.
It may seem like over-dramatization, but for the first time in my life, I felt real fear and anxiety. The thought of cutting into my eye and then waiting until my vision cleared up, which usually takes between one and three weeks, was causing medical relief brought on by shots of bourbon.
The night before surgery was quiet, no sleep was found, and there was tossing and turning until it was time to go. Upon arriving at the surgery center, there was instant comfort that I was in good hands. Once again, an incredibly competent staff greeted me that was bribed with a giant box of Bissinger Chocolates to try and win them over. It worked well because many of them came over during the pre-op to personally thank me for bringing chocolate.
The pre-op team was aware of the one-eye situation and worked to calm my high anxiety. They gave me some meds to calm me down, inserted an IV, and then quickly was off to the operating room. The procedure itself is a bit of a fog, and I woke up a bit groggy. Luckily, they decided not to patch my eye because that would have left me in the dark and very nervous. My vision was very blurry, and for the first time ever, Jane had total power over me and did not walk me into a post or send me into door frames as was probably deserved. The rest of January 10 was a blur, both figuratively and literally.
I woke about 4:30 a.m. the next morning at the Rosewood Sand Hill resort in Palo Alto, where we had taken a two-room suite with a fireplace. While having my coffee, I noticed an incredible detail — the embers under the logs in the fireplace. Not only could I see them crisply, but the colors jumped out at me. My vision was perfect. Flipping through the computer while wearing simple reading glasses revealed, for the first time in a couple of years, a clear screen that could be read with bright accompanied pictures. Wow. As we made our way to the car to go to my post-op doctor appointment, I became emotional at my unbelievably fast recovery and almost perfect vision. Pointing out all kinds of things to Jane that could be seen and read, and one of the most amazing outcomes was that colors were once again vibrant. It had been lost on me that true color had disappeared from my visual vocabulary.
Incredible. My vision was completely restored 48 hours after this amazing modern cataract surgery. One can only imagine such results in a farming community in the upper mountains of Nepal, where debilitating cataract blindness impacts–and has impacted–millions of families.
Thanks to all my friends, especially the Hutkins that traveled with us for the surgery trip, and family and those people who didn’t even know me who were praying for me and sharing my anxiety through the whole process. “It’s gonna be a bright, bright Sun-shiny day” (again courtesy of Johnny Nash).