Blind Spots

Sep 10, 2014   //   by Hank Dunn   //   Death & Dying, Hospice  //  2 Comments

Missed diagnoses. Denial. Blind spots.

What do they have in common?

It started a year ago. I was fishing behind my house on Goose Creek. I threw out a top-water lure—a “popper” in fly-fishing speak—and I saw two poppers instead of the one I had tied on my line. “That’s not right,” I thought.

So I went to an ophthalmologist and after many tests she said, “Mr. Dunn, I think you have had a stroke.” Then it was off to the neurologist and retina specialist, both of who ruled out stroke. The retina guy did say the retina in my right eye was tearing. There was nothing they could do about it at the time but we’ll, “keep an eye on it.”

In June the eye went black. I had two emergency surgeries to reattach a detached retina. Seems to be holding . . . which is the good news. The bad news is I am basically blind in the right eye. Light is coming in but the vision is very blurry and it probably cannot be corrected with a lens.

The double vision thing is still going on . . . most noticeable while driving. Often I put on a pirate patch on the eye to block out the distorted vision altogether.

I have learned a wonderful lesson about the human brain through all this. Most of the time I barely notice the blindness in my right eye. My brain basically ignores the bad eye and seems to dwell on the good information coming from the left eye. I function very well on one eye.

We know physicians sometimes fail to make a proper diagnosis and treat a patient for a condition that is really not the problem. Doctors also have gaps in their knowledge. Thaddeus Pope recently blogged about “Critical Gaps” in the legal knowledge of doctors practicing end-of-life medicine.

Like a good eye, they go with what they know. If there is an area of medicine for which they are unfamiliar they turn a blind eye toward it. The good eye is working so well.

In hospice and palliative care we see the oncologist who continues to recommend chemotherapy for a dying patient even though it offers no benefit, perhaps even makes life worse for the patient. They are blind to the benefits of stopping the chemo and shifting to improving quality of life in palliative care or hospice.

Patients and their families sometimes use denial as a blind spot. A patient is dying but no one considers death as a possible outcome of the current the disease. Believing that continued life is the only option they are “blind sided” when the patient dies.

Don’t get me wrong. Denial can serve a very good purpose for a time in helping people cope with a fatal prognosis. But it does bring in a huge blind spot in how one might spend their last days.


  • Very nice essay–how true!

  • Superb Hank! I love your accessible and creative writing style that weaves many threads of ordinary experience into a potent and poignant point with very broad application. All done with a compassionate and balanced view (despite and even partly because of the physically compromised perspective)! Well said my friend.