David Reitan: Cyclist, Grad Student and Funny Guy with a Prosthetic Eye

David and his ocularist, Dori. The ocularist uses oil pains with an acrylic topcoat to paint the artificial eye.
David and his ocularist, Dori. The ocularist makes the eye using paints and molds. Then, the eye is surgically implanted into the socket, attached with muscles and nerves. Photo: D. Reitan.

I think it’s safe to say most of us with two functional eyes—corrective vision or not—take eyesight for granted. It is hard to fathom irreparably losing sight in either let alone both eyes. But some of us are dealt an unlucky hand, and at age 5, David Reitan was one such individual, developing primary congenital glaucoma in his right eye. A degenerative disease, PCG affects 1 in 10,000 infants. In May this year, David was an artificial eye recipient—and the process is nothing short of impressive.

But what David reminds the lucky or unlucky individuals in this world is that disabilities and hardships shouldn’t consume us. In his words, “It has been a challenge, but I will never let it define me.” A cycling aficionado, he has gone on cross-country biking trips abroad with his brother, pedaling around Germany and France with camping pit stops along the way. And for any curious Georges out there, he does have a driver’s license.

Having a mutual love of comedy—he and I were both members of the Babbling Bishops, a college improv troupe—David has a sort of self-deprecating humor that shines through when he talks about his eye. I mean, he even named his bad eye, referring to it as Trent in conversation. (I’m eager to learn what he decides to call his new eye.)

David is a funny but reflective individual (case and point: most of his responses to my Q&A were in outline format). He often spreads awareness on his social media pages about the art and science behind prosthetic eyes or what we can learn about white privilege through bicycling.

Originally hailing from Green Bay, WI, David is currently attending grad school at Bowling Green State University in Ohio where he studies Higher Education and Student Affairs (HESA). And this kid will be turning 25 in just a few weeks, so we best wish him a Happy Birthday!

david biking offenburg
David, his brother and a friend biked around Germany, camping along the way. They ended their cycling trip in Offenburg. Photo: D. Reitan.

Q&A with David Reitan

What is your most rewarding accomplishment?

Wow. This is a tough one.  Sometimes I feel that given my privilege (white, straight, cis-gendered male from a middle class family) I have gotten a lot of things but have not had to work as hard for them as someone else has.  I’m not sure if that would discount any accomplishments I’ve earned, but I feel that it should be recognized.

I guess what I feel most accomplished about—when I stop to remind myself—is that I have many different interests and I’ve been able to explore them.  I haven’t given up on trying to find that special *thing* (passion, if you want to use that word) and that’s something I’m proud of.

Why did you choose Higher Education and Student Affairs as your field of interest?

Those who go through this type of program usually end up working in a variety of areas of a university, e.g. academic advising, career services, fraternity and sorority life, residence life, student activities/organizations, disabilities services, etc.

I chose to attend this program for a variety of reasons. One being, I had a great time in college and did a lot of networking in that industry prior to and after graduating.  It’s dynamic and exciting work and everyone whom I talked to about their work in student affairs and higher education in general really enjoyed what they were doing.

You are an alumnus of the Babbling Bishops, Ohio Wesleyan University’s improv comedy troupe. How did college improv prepare you for “the real world”?

Joining the Babbling Bishops was one of the best decisions I have ever made.  There is pure magic when you are on stage with a group of people who are just as weird and creative as you are, who support you in every way in any decision you make.  I don’t know if I will ever again experience that same kind of community, but by glorb I hope I do.

babbling bishops alumni show
David “Pop Fly” Reitan participated in a 21-year reunion show with current and alumni Babbling Bishops improv troupe members at Ohio Wesleyan University. This is one funny group of people who you would want to be stuck in a traffic jam with, trust me. Photo: S. Venzel.

The Babblers prepared me for “the real world” in a variety of ways. 

  1. Improv has taught me to be open to opportunities.  There is no reason to stop exploring, to stop trying new things.
  2. Be open to suggestion.  Some of our best growing happens when we are given constructive feedback.  Don’t take it personally.
  3. Failure is good. (Of course there are limits to how much one might want to experience, but generally speaking it’s OK to fail or—at the very least—have plans change.)
  4. Being silly is good for your health.  I have learned this lesson very recently.  Being in a graduate program means that there is a certain amount of professionalism that is expected from you (as well there should be), but sometimes I feel that this comes at a price of being my authentic self.  There are instances where I want to cackle like a hyena and run sideways across the lawn and you can’t do that when you’re wearing a professional name tag.  So when I can’t do those things, I feel a little less like myself.  Luckily, I have been able to find at least a few friends who will accept me when I do those things—one of them did improv as well, which goes to show just how deep these nutty waters run.
  5. Most importantly, the Babblers have given me a fantastic community of friends.  As I am writing this, I am in the Harold Washington Library in Chicago.  I’m killing time between flights and will soon be reunited with Mike “Feartrain” Granzow.  I can’t wait to lick his face and tell him how much I’ve missed him.                         a. But really, it’s so important to have friends in your life.  This               becomes more and more true the older I get and I am forever           grateful that I have a community like the Babblers in my life.
The ocularist uses oil paint and an acrylic topcoat to design the artificial eye to look nearly identical to the existing eye.
The ocularist uses oil paint and an acrylic topcoat to design the artificial eye to look nearly identical to the existing eye. Photo: D. Reitan.

What history can you shed light on about prosthetic eyes?

My prosthetic is made out of acrylic.  Glass eyes are still made, but are more popular in other places, e.g. Germany.  During WW2, glass was conserved for the war effort.  Military dentists suggested to eye surgeons they just make an eye like a fake tooth, by using a mold and fitting it to the patient’s socket.  Although they take longer to make, the eyes will last about 5-7 years as oppose to the glass eyes.  Plus, they are, in my opinion, safer for the patient.  God forbid you have a glass eye and miss a ball playing catch. You basically have a light bulb in your head.

This is David post-surgery, all healed with his prosthetic eye implant. Can you tell which is which?
This is David post-surgery, all healed with his prosthetic eye implant. Can you tell which is which? Photo: D. Reitan.

Recently, you received a prosthetic eye. What was the process like—the before, during and after? And, the big question, are you happy with the end result?

My eye was in particularly bad shape so I had a consultation with my ophthalmologist and Dori, my occularist (she’s the one who actually makes the eye).  My dad also worked with a man, named Dan, who has had a prosthetic and went through the same procedure (an enucleation, the operation wherein the eye is removed) as I did about six years ago.  I had one or two phone calls with Dan and that really helped me get an idea as to what to expect and made the process seem a lot less scary. I sat right across a small table from Dori as she made my eye.  I met with her to form a mold (the most uncomfortable part of the whole process) for three hours one day, came back the next morning for about two hours, and finished that same afternoon in about another hour (they call it the 3-2-1 scheme).  So in total I was in the office for about 6-7 hours as she made my eye.

The day of surgery I made two lists.  The first list I made was all the cool stuff I got to do when I had my bad eye.  The second was the things I wanted to keep doing after my procedure.  That really helped me—and my dad especially, the big softy—put things in perspective.  It has been a challenge, but it has not, nor will it ever, define me.

At the hospital I did a dance to help me relax.  Then the anesthesiologist gave me “something to help me relax” and I woke up about 2 hrs. later with a big bandage on my head. 

There is a small silicon ball behind my prosthetic that gives shape to my socket, fills the void where my eye was and allows the prosthetic to move about.  The surgeon had to attach muscles to that silicon ball and they needed time to heal so anytime I tried to move my eyes it really hurt.  I learned pretty quickly that I needed to turn my head fully to look around at anything.

I’m very happy with the procedure.  Prior to my surgery, I was taking six eye drops from three different medications just to control the pressure in my eye.  This is the first time in my conscious life that I haven’t had to do that.

eye implant painting
The ocularist methodically paints the colored iris atop an acrylic mold, similar to that used in dentistry for fake teeth. Photo: D. Reitan.

How has being vision impaired affected your life? Was your daily living affected in any way after your eye surgery?

Absolutely.  Even when I had my old eye, Trent*, I was still receiving bits of light which helped with my depth perception and peripheral vision.  Now my vision has become much more centered and I can’t see what’s on my right as well as I used to, or someone with two eyes.  However, I think I’m in a better situation.  I’ve always had a bad eye, so it’s not like I lost a perfectly healthy eye to a freak accident and had to make a mental/psychological recovery on top of a physical one.

reitan abroad bike trip
David and friends made sure to stop for sight-seeing and, apparently, rock climbing during cycling tours of France and Germany. Photo: D. Reitan.

What do you like to do in your free time?

  1. Exercise or do some sort of physical movement.  My body is still a happy puppy that needs to run around. I usually ride a bike around Bowling Green as my main form of transportation.                        a. Bikes are way cool, dude.
  2. Contemplate getting a tattoo and then not get one…yet…
  3. Write letters.  I’ve really come to enjoy writing letters to friends.
  4. Traveling, especially to large cities.  I really like urban design and would be doing that if I wasn’t in higher ed. At the moment.
  5. Catch up with friends and family.  Hello, holidays!
  6. I’ll be applying for summer positions while I’m home so not really anything that I “enjoy” doing but is certainly important to do.
  7. HOPEFULLY BE IN A REUNION BABBLING BISHOPS SHOW THIS NEXT SPRING!!!
  8. Most importantly, nothing I am currently doing or want to do has changed because of my eye.  I am so thankful it hasn’t.

There you have it, folks. A quick Q&A with David Reitan, an incredibly lovable, laughable, grateful, insightful guy.

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