'Another kind of life'

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal State Archivist Guy Rocha has lost most of the vision in his left eye to glaucoma and is fighting to save the vision in his right eye. Rocha says making his deeply personal battle public has been difficult, but he hopes his experience will help others to appreciate their eyes and "get regular exams."

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal State Archivist Guy Rocha has lost most of the vision in his left eye to glaucoma and is fighting to save the vision in his right eye. Rocha says making his deeply personal battle public has been difficult, but he hopes his experience will help others to appreciate their eyes and "get regular exams."

By Dave Frank

Appeal Staff Writer

Guy Rocha presses a newspaper against the arm of his couch and hunches over.

"Monday, May 19th," he reads.

"Mostly sunny," he says a moment later.

The historian and Nevada state archivist moves his magnifying glass to an article lower on the page. He says this is how he's had to do his research since his glaucoma has gotten worse.

To show what it is like for him to read fine print, he begins an article about the country's mortgage problems.

"First, the good news," he says, pausing to examine the next phrase.

He looks up from the article after reading a few lines. He says it is difficult to read documents, collect research and find the answers he needs.

The sight in his left eye is almost gone, and he's trying to save the right eye. It has been operated on twice this year.

Doctors can't promise treatment will fix it.

"It's just too slow," the 56-year-old man says. "I can't live like this forever. My god, if I do, I live another kind of life."

The Pressure

That day, Rocha, who has been the state archivist for over 25 years, went to a specialist for one of a dozen exams he's had this year.

He wanted good news.

Vision in his right eye had been getting cloudier, and he didn't know what that meant. The eye was red and bulging.

Dr. Robert Wolff of Sierra Nevada Eye Center poked, tested and evaluated the eye during the exam. He told Rocha the eye seemed stable, and pressure, which can build and can damage nerves like it did in Rocha's left eye, hadn't risen. Inflammation was down.

A tube that doctors put in Rocha's eye to drain backed-up fluid, however, was leaking. Fluid needs to go through the tube so it won't increase pressure in the eye.

Besides that, Rocha said, the report was one of the best he has heard about his disease.

Deterioration of his vision has been unusually difficult to treat from the beginning, even though Rocha hadn't suspected anything until Wolff checked his eye pressure in 2004.

Rocha had gone in for laser eye vision correction surgery at that appointment. He didn't want to have to wear glasses when he played softball.

The doctor told him he couldn't have his vision corrected, because he had discovered that Rocha had glaucoma in both eyes.

The disease moved quickly in Rocha's left eye after he was diagnosed. He tried eye drops and other treatment, but it couldn't control the pressure. Surgery in 2005 saved the eye from collapse, but most vision was lost.

Vision in his right eye was still strong, however, and Rocha found the vision he did have compensated for his loss and made his vision relatively normal.

Until recently, he didn't have too many problems managing state archives, writing a regular column on Nevada history, hosting a public radio program and answering daily questions about Nevada from state, national and international media.

This year, Rocha missed several weeks of work for treatment, and, when he got back, his job was harder to do.

A document that once took him five minutes to read now takes him an hour, he said.

Vision, Wolff said, is the primary way most people relate to the world; blindness terrifies them.

"They'd rather lose an arm, a leg, their hearing," he said. "It's devastating."

The Recovery

In interviews with NPR, NBC, the BBC and other media, Rocha's favorite topic is historical myths. He's argued against predictions that Nevada's capital will be moved to Las Vegas, pointed out the baseless glamorization of a murdered 19th-century Virginia City prostitute and criticized ABC television host George Stephanopoulos for mispronouncing the name of the state.

Myths need to be exposed, Rocha said, because many, like the glorification of some white founders of Northern Nevada, can have real consequences for people, often the powerless.

The mission is something Rocha has dedicated his life to, and something that has made the state better, said University of Nevada professor Bob Blesse.

The loss of Rocha as a resource would be "distressing," said David Millman, director of the Las Vegas state museum.

Millman, who has helped drive Rocha when the archivist couldn't see well enough, said he thinks Rocha is handling the disease as well as possible.

Blesse said Rocha is fighting the disease but doesn't seem angry.

"I think that he's being philosophical about it," said Blesse, a friend of Rocha's for over 20 years. "I think that Guy has kind of a historical perspective on these kinds of things."

But Dennis Myers, a Reno journalist who's worked on projects with the archivist, said the pain of some Rocha's treatments, such as shots in his eyes, has been excruciating.

"I don't know how quickly someone can recover from that," he said.

The Twilight

There are some things Rocha said he could accept. He's accomplished a lot of what he wanted to do in his job, for instance, so he could accept leaving that.

Because of injuries and age, he's already had to accept giving up the sports he loves, such as softball, wrestling and track.

But blindness, he said - he's not ready for that. He said he will deal with it if it comes, but he doesn't know what his life will be like then.

He'd planned to travel when he retired. He wanted to see places like Machu Picchu and the Great Wall of China.

But he said he doesn't know if the experience would be the same if he was blind, if he had to listen to a description of the things he should be looking at.

"When you stop (seeing)," he said, "I think the fundamental question is: Do you lose a connection to other human beings? Or do you find another way to relate to them?"

He might never have to find out. He might get better. Treatment might stabilize the vision he has and he might stay the same.

If he does have to have surgery again, he said, at least he knows it won't hurt.

"I'm in a twilight," Rocha said. "I'm in a twilight. I'm awake, but I'm not feeling anything."

• Contact reporter Dave Frank at dfrank@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1212.

Glaucoma facts

What is glaucoma?

It is a disease that damages the optic nerve and is one of the leading causes of blindness.

What causes the disease?

Doctors aren't sure, but one of the effects is often backed-up fluid that leads to increased eye pressure, which can destroy the optic nerve.

What can people do?

Have their eyes checked regularly, especially if they are older. Most people don't know they have the disease until it is caught in a routine exam.

Sources: Glaucoma Research Foundation; Dr. Robert Wolff


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