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Iditarod musher slowly recovers from frozen eye
Anchorage Daily News


April 10, 2006

Back home in Minnesota now, the eye that musher Paul Ellering froze in Alaska last month is slowly healing. The pain is gone, the vision apparently returning.

This week he was to try putting a contact lens in place for the first time in weeks. The last time he used a contact, he couldn't get it out.

"The lens froze to the eye," Ellering said.

He said this matter-of-factly over the telephone from his home. A retired professional wrestler, Ellering had to chuckle at the irony of spending his career in an occupation where participants sometimes stick their fingers in each other's eyes only to suffer his most serious eye injury in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race where nothing obvious happened.




Out on the trail passing through the vast nothingness from Ophir to Cripple, Alaska with the thermometer flirting with 50 degrees below, Ellering dozed on his sled. When he awoke, his eye was frozen.

"It came on so suddenly," he said.

And at first, it didn't seem like much. There wasn't any pain, Ellering said. He simply lost vision in one eye, and it was cold. At the Cripple checkpoint, he asked a veterinarian - medical doctors being rare along the Iditarod Trail - to take a look.

The first thing the vet did was shine a bright light into the eye to begin the examination. He might as well have shoved in a spike, according to Ellering.

"I couldn't stand it," the musher said. "It hurt so bad."

Everyone knew pretty quick from the agony that the injury was serious. The vet, Ellering said, was nice enough to shine the light along the side of the eye where things weren't so painful and take a second look.

"He says, 'There's just a huge white spot in the middle there, and the rest of it is clouded over,'" Ellering said.

It wasn't hard to figure out then what had happened. Four-time Iditarod champ Doug Swingley's nightmare experience with corneal frostbite from a couple of years earlier was still fresh in everybody's mind. Injuries to both eyes forced Swingley to drop out of the race.

At the time, some were skeptical about what had happened, knowing the Montana musher's fierce competitive drive. They speculated Swingley had decided he wasn't going to win and looked for an excuse to scratch.

Ellering said now that he's just amazed that Swingley kept going for a couple of checkpoints after he froze his eyes.

"The aftereffects you feel," Ellering said. "It just weeped and weeped and weeped. At first, I didn't bandage it, and the pain was excruciating. I had to keep my mitt up over one eye."

This, of course, all came after Ellering thawed his eye out and the vet used a contact lens plunger to remove the contact. An Iditarod veteran and a wearer of hard contact lenses that round off an acute astigmatism, Ellering said he was "lucky" - yeah, that was his word - to have the plunger.

"I carry it just for such an emergency," the Iditarod veteran said.

They look a lot like an old-fashioned, saucer-shaped bathroom plunger. Only in this case, they're not used for plunging. Instead, one wets the open cup of the plunger, puts that on the contact, and the two stick together to make hard-to-remove lenses come off easily. According to one description, the bond between the plunger and the lens is so strong that you can't pull the latter off; you have to slide it to one side and slip it off.

Were it not for the plunger - for better or worse - Ellering might have been forced to scratch from this year's Iditarod race to go seek medical help. Instead, though there remained about 500 miles of mushing through bitter cold before Nome, Ellering decided to keep going.

After all, he reasoned, he still had one good eye.

"It was real touch-and-go there for a while," he said. "I had real empathy with Swingley because he had both eyes (injured). It would be impossible with two eyes. I had one good eye."

With one good eye, holding a mitten over the bad eye for much of the time, Ellering struggled into Ruby on the Yukon River. There, he had the eye bandaged, and for the long trek down the Yukon River and then over the Kaltag Portage to the coast at Unalakleet things went pretty well.

the doctors, he said, believe he will eventually get most of his vision back, though he admits it isn't much good without corrective lenses anyway. That's why he was testing out new contacts this week, hopeful that he will still be able to use them.

Others might want to take note of this when working and traveling in extreme cold and wind, not only along the Iditarod Trail but also on places like Mount McKinley, where the climbing season is set to begin next month.

Good fur ruffs on parkas and goggles are a good idea for everybody. So is a little extra attention to what the weather might be doing to your eyes, especially if you're one of those fast-aging baby boomers still looking for adventure.

Almost in a blink, all of the fun could be taken out of the adventure.

"It just don't take long," Ellering said.


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