My left eye went dark. One moment I had been reveling in the mayhem of a company party. The next, I was staggering through a black hole to the eye doctor. On a late afternoon in mid-June, 1997, I learned that the retina in my left eye had detached. I’d already spent the majority of my life struggling with my sight. Throughout my childhood and teenage years ophthalmologists had stamped me as “severely handicapped.” Then this happened. There were no warning signs. Blindness was hours away.
“Turn it up!” someone screamed.
“Not too loud,” a few others yelled.
“It’s Friday!” clapped another, raising the volume up high.
It was someone’s birthday in the boardroom. There was a white icing sheet cake in the back, sprawled on a desk, with cups, plates, and sodas of every brand. Its vanilla scent carried into the hallway where a few corporate dresses chatted in cliques. There were chips, pretzels, and candy kisses in bowls. Candles lit, the crowd roared, “One, two, three, blow!” One hundred white shirts and ties wearing party hats cursed, shoved, pounded desks, and elbowed each other. With each beat of the music, we grew louder and louder in that 3rd Avenue boiler room in mid-town Manhattan. “Bamboleo” by the Gipsy Kings had been cranked on the stereo receiver. With the sound blaring from overhead, some jumped up on desks, others loosened their ties. Supervisors grabbed assistants and twirled them into a rumba. Others clapped their hands, snapped their fingers, and danced solo in the aisles.
I’d been with this firm for four months. It had been a tradition to celebrate a birthday with food, music, and bags of shredded old account forms. Since I had entered in February, they’d thrown six of these shindigs. This one seemed to be getting a bit wild. The two guys I was friendly with in my row, Ben and Roger, had belted out the words in my face, “Bamboleo! Bambolea!” The strings played, the Kings sang. “Porque mi vida, yo la prefiero vivir asi…” I’d stepped up onto my chair, laughed, and pumped my right fist into the air.
Then someone shouted, “Break out the 151!” as the boardroom cheered.
Someone had shut the big green metal doors in the front and the festivities rolled on. I hoisted myself up onto the desk, took a swig of my spiked 7-up, and ad-libbed a little salsa move with the music. Then I raised both arms, bent my knees, sprang high into the air, and jumped off. The cup flew from my hands, and feet hit the floor hard. That’s when everything went black.
I thought I’d hit my head on the corner of a desk or was accidentally punched in the face as I bungeed off from above. I didn’t feel anything but wasn’t sure. No one had come to my rescue. Streaks of lightening flashed in my eye. Bent over, I squeezed my eyes shut, then opened them. I loosened my tie and opened the top button. With my four fingers pressed against my forehead and thumb on my cheek, I closed my eyes again, then opened them. I couldn’t see out of my left eye.
Someone’s muffled voice uttered, “Who threw that cup?! Someone gonna need to clean that shit.”
People danced around me as I blinked, then blinked again. Tears leaked from my left eye as I began to shake and sweat. The party hadn’t stopped as the Kings handed their mike to AC/DC’s Brian Johnson. “She was a fast machine, she kept her motor clean…” The floor started to vibrate as shirts and ties started doing shots.
“Tom, are you OK?” my friend Ben asked over the music.
“My eye, I don’t know what’s wrong,” I told him, squinting. “There’s something in it.”
“I’d go wash it out in the bathroom,” he said. “Maybe there’s dust on your lens.”
“Good idea,” I replied.
I leaned over the sink in the men’s room, took out my contact lens, and flushed my eye with water five or six times.
Someone came out of a stall, looked at me, and said, “You OK?”
“A little too much 151,” I told him sarcastically.
My reflection in the mirror was blurred. I closed my right eye, opened my left. My sight was gone. With my head down and hands on the sink, I said to myself, “God no, this can’t be happening.” I put my contact lens back into my eye. I wasn’t even sure if that tiny piece of plastic hit the eyeball. It was still dark, except for the flash of bright light in the corners, streaking in and out. The music was faint. I stood in a daze, took a deep breath, and felt my heart beating through my skin. “I’m living my worst fear,” I thought as my mind went into a sudden panic. I walked back into a dense fog of incoherent chatter, went to my desk, and picked up the phone.
Over the music I stuttered into the receiver, “Hi, it’s, it’s, hello?—it’s Tom Migdale, is Dr. Shulman in? Yeah, is he there now? It’s, it’s an emergency.” I don’t remember the cab ride there.
In his examining chair, I was on my back as my eye doctor peered into my eye with a spotlight. The beam stung. My lids ached. Then I sat up, rested my chin and forehead on his eye machine. He scoped the back of my eye with another bright light. “Try not to blink,” he told me. Sweat poured down my face. I was terrified to think that my once perfect vision had vanished, in seconds.
“Detached retina,” he repeated. “The entire retina has detached. You’re going to need surgery immediately.”
I sat there silent.
“What’s a detached retina?” I asked him. “How did this happen?”
“Tom, there’s not much time left. I’m going to send you over now to see a specialist,” he told me.
“Time? I don’t understand. It’s 6 o’clock, My 13 month old daughter is at home. I need to go…”
“If you don’t go now, there’s a good chance you’ll go blind in that eye.”
I remembered sinking deeper into the chair boxed in by the glare of a dull, yellow light, illuminating the office. My eye doctor of fourteen years remained silent. I thought about the path my vision had taken up until this point. My head throbbed and chest ached. Seconds ticked.
He walked me outside, handed me his home number on a small folded piece of paper, and hailed a cab. As I got into the taxi he said, “This is very serious, but don’t worry, you’ll be all right. Dr. Fuchs will take care of you.” Tears rolled down my face in the backseat. One minute I was singing “Bamboleo,” the next, my eye doctor had diagnosed me with a detached retina.
Dr. Fuchs said the same thing.
“The retina is fully detached. If you don’t operate within 72 hours, Tom, you’ll go blind.”
He offered to perform the operation, but his practice didn’t accept my insurance. I wandered aimlessly to my gate at Port Authority thinking, wondering, not knowing. That night I rode the bus home to Hackensack, NJ as if I’d been paralyzed from the neck down. I couldn’t move. There were imaginary knives jabbing at the back of my neck. It was a long dark ride into a tunnel of questions that floated in and out of my mind.
“This is insane? God, what now?” I thought.
My good eye wandered the night sky through the bus window. I could hear my heartbeat and feel my hands shaking. I did all I could to remember streetlamps and apartment lights. Seconds after I yanked on the cord, the bus pulled over and dropped me off on a street corner. The decision came at a moment’s guess. I stumbled into my complex and entered my apartment as if I’d been in a roadside collision. It was as if my ears had caved in. It was pitch black and dead quiet. My body was stiff. I couldn’t eat or change my clothes. My dress shirt was soaked with worry. I sat in silence, in the dark. Several hours later, I left Dr. Shulman a message. Later that night, he called and gave me the cell number of Dr. Ben Cohen, his close friend and colleague who happened to be on my plan. He was the lead ophthalmologist at Retina Associates on Lexington Avenue and 80th. He and Dr. Jeff Paccione saw me the following day, Saturday, June 14th, a weekend exam the office had labeled as “urgent matter.” They scheduled my surgery for Monday morning, June 16th at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City. My heart sunk. After all I had been through with my eyes. Could I go blind? My eye had been perfect the previous morning. I called my parents on a stomach flooded with anxiety. My voice cracked and eyes watered.
“Dad? Something happened to my eye,” I stammered through the receiver.
“Last night. My left eye. I can’t see. Everything’s dark.”
I choked up imagining his facial expression. That sigh of fear. After a moment of silence came the quiet words, “Oh my God.”
That night I couldn’t eat or sleep. Sunday I sat motionless on my couch in my New Jersey apartment. I replayed Friday afternoon’s steps in my head over and over.
“Migs, step up onto the chair,” Ben suggested.
“No, the desk,” Roger told him.
“First the chair, then the desk,” I laughed.
The boardroom is spinning. The voices seem to drown themselves inside a tin can. “Bamboleo” by the Gypsy Kings is blaring, resonating, throughout the room. In the daydream, I see myself dancing, laughing, twisting. “Bembele, Bembele, Bembele…” The cup flies from my hand in slow-motion. Then a sharp stick of light hits my eye. Where am I? There’s a beam of light. It’s bright, so bright. I can’t see anything.
Monday morning, someone had wheeled me into a large operating room. There were cackles of laughter and muffled sounds coming from somewhere. I wasn’t paying attention as I felt tired and drained with anxiety. I’d popped the contact lens out of my right eye as told and saw blurred visions of faces. My parents had taken seats in the waiting room with me before I was escorted down a bleak and dismal hallway. With my right eye, I looked up and vaguely saw two physicians in light blue surgical scrubs wearing shower caps ready to take a scalpel to my face. Their subdued words echoed inside my altered state. “Count backwards from 100 to 1, Tom, when you’re done, it’ll be over.” An IV attached to my finger, I felt the anesthesia seeping in. Lights flickered in and out of my subconscious. My right eye went first. Open, shut, open, shut, a flicker of sharp light, shut, open. Then it all went dark.