This article originally ran as an Inside column in The Observer.
Occasionally, people ask me why the corner of my right eye is unusually red and splotchy.
Short answer: it’s a birthmark. No, really.
Long answer: no, not really. It’s actually the remnants of a limbur epibulbar dermoid, which is an overgrowth of normal skin in an abnormal place. When I was born, the white of my eye encroached a little onto my pupil. It didn’t do anything too crazy (dermoids are generally benign), but it was pretty weird-looking, so when I was three years old I had surgery to remove it. I remember waking up, eating ice cream, crying and wearing an eye patch for awhile.
Problem solved. Except the surgery didn’t go quite right, and I ended up with a red and blotchy patch where the dermoid used to be. A few months later, I had another surgery to correct it. It wasn’t corrected. Hence, splotch.
Camp counselors who don’t know what pinkeye looks like have thought I have pinkeye ever since.
Here’s the interesting thing, though: when I was three, and my parents became concerned about my mutant eyeball, eye-dermoid surgery was still in its early stages. Apparently, if you were unfortunate enough to be born with a dermoid (which, considering all the things that could grow out of your eye, is not especially unfortunate), you just had to walk around without a perfectly round pupil. Although toddler me might have been too loopy to appreciate it, the surgery that gave me my splotch was kind of cutting-edge.
And the eye doctors are apparently pretty good at it now. I’ve been told the doctor who did my surgery was instrumental in developing the surgery itself. You don’t see three-year-olds today walking around with bloodshot eyes after their cosmetic surgery. In fact, if I wanted to, I could have one more procedure to get rid of the red part entirely. The optometrists I see on a semi-regular basis started telling me that when I was around 12, and the risk factors they give me decrease with each subsequent check-up.
I keep my splotch around, though. I’m not entirely sure why. I guess I’d rather not undergo a medical procedure on my eyeball unless I absolutely need to. Or maybe it’s sentimental, a small reminder of the tremendous work that has gone into making my face look presentable. Maybe it’s also a reminder of the importance of medical advancement and how I might have played a small role in the development of one particular branch of optometry. Perhaps it makes me feel unique or important or something.
In any case, my blotch is a part of me, and I feel strangely protective of it. I’m not tired (well, I am, but that’s not what makes my eye red), I’m not sick, it doesn’t hurt and I’m glad you brought it up – I actually like to talk about it because I think it’s a cool story.
That’s what I tell people, if they ask.
My mom suggested I just call it a birthmark, but I prefer the long story.