As most of you know, at one time I was a professional fly fishing guide on the Beaverkill River, located in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York near the little town of Roscoe. Less a guide and more of an instructor, I introduced beginners to the wonderful pastime that combines sport with the outdoors. I also helped intermediate fly fishermen to derive even more enjoyment from the activity they already loved. I was not only fortunate enough to spend nearly every weekend of trout season—April through September—for ten years, spreading the fly fishing “gospel,” but I was paid handsomely to do it! I was truly blessed.
Sometime during the 1995 season, I became aware that I was having difficulty in maintaining my balance while wading in the moving water of the river. Eventually, it became enough of a problem that I sought medical attention. And that’s when I discovered that I only had half a working balance system. After extensive testing and an MRI, I learned that my left vestibular nerve, part of the vestibulocochlear nerve responsible for balance, was totally non-responsive. The net effect was vertigo and a sudden loss of balance—often at the most inopportune times—while wading in heavy current, or driving my pickup truck.
The cause was determined to be idiopathic (a fancy Latin word that, loosely translated, means “We have absolutely no clue!”). To further compound things, there was no treatment or surgery available to rectify the situation. “So what do I do?” I asked. “Well,” said the specialist, “there are some exercises that you can do to train your brain to utilize visual input rather than sensory input to help maintain your balance.” He handed me a sheet of paper that outlined Cawthorne’s Vestibular Head Exercises. “Will they help?” I asked. “They may,” he replied. Not much of an endorsement, I thought, but I figured I’d give them a try.
After four solid months of twice-daily sessions of exercises that included moving my eyes and my head up and down, back and forth; standing and sitting with eyes open and eyes closed; walking across rooms and up and down stairs in a similar fashion; and tossing a little rubber ball up in the air and in between my legs, etc., my balance was fully restored to normal (as far as I could discern). Great! The exercises were a success. Soon, I resumed playing tennis, running—and, most important of all, fly fishing and guiding. I was a happy camper.
In June of 1999, Becky and I moved from suburban New Jersey to the mountains of western North Carolina. Each spring, I returned to the Catskills for a week’s renewal of my spirit, fly fishing my favorite streams from dawn to dusk with old friends. In January of 2000, I suffered a detached retina in my left eye. Fortunately, laser surgery restored my sight to normal. Seven years later (on the exact same day of the year as the original occurrence) I suffered a second detachment—in the very same eye! This time, the laser option was not viable, and I underwent a cryogenic treatment that involved the surgical insertion of a scleral buckle in my eye, stitched in place to keep the retina from ever detaching again. It worked! But it also left me with some slight double vision. (Luckily, I only see double when I look directly down, or to my extreme left.) I could still drive, read, fish, and pretty much do everything I could before the injury. Wunderbar!
Slowly but surely, however, my balance began to deteriorate again (no doubt, compounded by the double vision), until eventually I was forced to resume the exercises. When they failed to fully restore my balance, I sought medical attention once more. A battery of tests revealed that, now, both the left and the right vestibular nerves were non-functioning. “I don’t know how you are even standing upright!” was the otolaryngologist’s reaction when he saw the test results. I told him about the exercises. “Keep doing them,” he advised. And I did—for a while—at least until my balance seemed better.
Over the next five or six years, I would do the exercises for a while, take a breather, then resume them again. Things went along like that until October 2, 2015, when I had my stroke. In almost every other way, I came away unscathed—except for my balance, which took another hit. Now, I use a trekking pole (okay, it’s a cane) when I walk, and especially when I hike in nearby Dupont Forest, where I generally use two. For the moment, I am resigned to the fact that traditional fly fishing is probably beyond my capabilities. There’ll be no more wading chest deep in those beautiful trout-filled waters that have become my “life blood” over the last 45 years—or, maybe there will be.
Undaunted, I have wracked my brain trying to conceive of a way to continue to practice my favorite activity—and I think I have found it! This June, when I make my way north (with Becky doing most of the driving) for my annual “Trout Sabbatical” with my good friend, Bob, I will experiment with a new “system.” The plan is to use a float tube with arm rests and a back rest, and to attach a rope and anchor to keep the device from moving, as I cast my flies upon the water. I have no doubt that it will work . . . well . . . okay, maybe it won’t. But if it doesn’t, I’ll just use my God-given imagination to come up with something else that will!
(Did I tell you that I was “idiopathically” afflicted with peripheral neuropathy in my feet about six years ago?) Oh, never mind. Forget I mentioned it. Let’s just keep things in perspective—or, shall I say, in balance. Beaverkill, here I come!
Many senior citizens suffer from balance problems and/or dizziness. If you’re one of them, please ask your doctor about Cawthorne’s Vestibular Exercises (also called Cawthorne-Cooksey Exercises for Dizziness). (Note: I am not a doctor, nor do I recommend that anyone try these exercises without consulting a doctor first.)