Me versus Keratoconus

By Ben Kraushaar

I despise doctor visits. I dread the overflowing waiting rooms, flickering fluorescent lights, stacks of mundane magazines covered in strangers’ germs and chalked full of trivial articles about interior design or the hottest fashion trends. Doctor visits make for a miserable time, especially when it’s a beautiful day outside.

Fourteen years ago, when I was in my early 20s, I forced myself to go to the doctor for a routine physical: a requirement to join the Fort Lewis College Cycling Team. I reluctantly sacrificed an afternoon of riding a glorious single track, trudged through a cacophony of crying babies and sneezing grandmothers and plopped down on the cold steel doctor’s bed not expecting anything to be awry. I’ve always been a healthy person and my medical family history was decent enough. What do I have to be worried about?

"The doc looked at me incredulously... 'You can’t see. I’m going to write you a referral to an eye specialist. You need to get your vision figured out.' "

Weight = normal; blood pressure = normal; heart rate = normal. I even had cat-like reflexes when the doc hit my knee with a tomahawk reflex mallet.  Wow. What a waste of a great day.

The final part of the physical entailed an eye exam. The doctor asked me to close one eye and to read a series of black letters on a chart across the room. After proudly reading off the top lines of big letters, I tried to read the smaller lines.  Damn those letters are tiny. Wake up Ben, focus. I mostly guessed and failed miserably.

The doc looked at me incredulously, “How did you get a driver’s license? You shouldn’t be driving without corrective lenses.”

“Excuse me?”

“Yeah, you shouldn’t be driving. You can’t see. I’m going to write you a referral to an eye specialist. You need to get your vision figured out.”

Well shit. Looks like my health wasn’t perfect and my vision wasn’t 20/20. In fact, my vision was awful.
I spent the following weeks in various eye clinics to try and figure out what was wrong with my vision. Ultimately, I was diagnosed with a rare eye disease called Keratoconus, a condition in which my cornea in each eye is deformed, shaped like a cone rather than a dome. The tiny fibers of protein in my eye (collagen) were weak and could no longer hold my corneas in place. My condition had progressed to the point that glasses would not improve anything. I tried hard contact lenses. They were miserable. Nothing feels worse than literally putting glass discs in your eyeballs.

"I started hunting in 2018, but was legitimately concerned about how my garbage eyes would hold up in a sport that relies so heavily on acute vision."

After months of talking to different docs, I participated in an FDA trial study of a procedure called Corneal Crosslinking or as I like to call it, eye torture. The procedure aims to strengthen the cornea by using ultraviolet light and riboflavin eye drops in order to strengthen the collagen fibers in the cornea. I compare it to staring directly at the sun for 45 minutes, no blinking allowed, while simultaneously having your eyes bombarded with bright yellow eye drops. In the end, the procedure was a success. Painful yet effective. My vision slightly improved, but most importantly, it didn’t deteriorate. Left untreated, Keratoconus can result in blindness and in some instances, requires cornea transplants. The thought of getting some dead person’s corneas sewn onto my eyeballs makes me cringe. No thanks.
Fast forward to 2020. I had been living in Wyoming for five years, going to graduate school, but in reality, I was mostly spending my time wandering remote river banks casting flies to elusive trout. I started hunting in 2018, but was legitimately concerned about how my garbage eyes would hold up in a sport that relies so heavily on acute vision.

A month ago, while stalking antelope through Wyoming’s sagebrush and across the folded, corduroy landscape, I couldn’t help but to take a moment to reflect on my privilege, my good health, my relationships and our access to wild spaces and public lands. Nothing is guaranteed. 

I could have been born somewhere without access to top-notch healthcare. I could be blind. I could have never found a hunting mentor and I could have never met my amazing fiancée, Anna. Our public lands could be exploited, fragmented and sold off to the highest bidder. Our wildlife, rivers, and habitat could fall to the threat of industry and greed. Ultimately, some things you have control over and others you do not.
On this particular week-long hunt, everything came together perfectly. Amongst our close friends, I watched Anna harvest her first big game animal. I successfully made a clean shot on a buck from within 100 yards and my hunting mentor, Pete, harvested his first antelope buck in the final minutes of legal shooting light on our last day in the sage. 

As the sun dropped over the rolling hills, my gratitude for good health had never been stronger. We returned home with a freezer full of meat and memories that will never fade. If there’s one thing I’ve learned reflecting on my health, is that the people you surround yourself with and the opportunities that exist in wild places are everything. They have defined me as a human and I can only hope that, one day, I can share the same experiences with another generation of hunters.

Ben is a photographer and filmmaker based out of Laramie, Wyoming and is currently a graduate student at the University of Wyoming where he is pursuing a MA in Geography and Water Resources. His research focuses on using adventure filmmaking as a platform of science communication. He works with non-profits, federal land agencies, outdoor brands, tribes and western communities to create stories inspiring stewardship, awareness and engagement. His latest film, Powell 150, tells the story of the Colorado River Basin through the lens of a 70-day, 1000-mile expedition he completed in 2019. When he's not working on film projects, he can be found hunting and fishing across Wyoming.

IG: @benjamin_kraushaar