by Hugh Gilmore

My wife and I hate flying and enjoy train rides, so last week we boarded Amtrak’s Silver Star and let it carry us down the eastern seaboard to Tampa, Fla. That’s a 24-hour-ride, made much easier by booking a sleeper for Jan and me and a “roomette” for our 26-year-old son, Andrew. In Tampa, a rental car awaited.

Our ultimate destination was beautiful Sanibel Island, but first, we’d drive to St. Petersburg to see the Salvador Dali Museum. Andrew is a scholar of animated films and, since Dali claimed that cartoons influenced his surrealistic style, he wanted to see Dali’s work with his own eyes.

The Silver Star leaves Philadelphia around 12:30 p.m. By the time you board and settle in and read a bit and have dinner, you are well into the evening and getting ready for bed.

About 9 p.m. the train had just left the bright lights of Raleigh, N.C., behind and started plunging through the southern darkness.

Jan went to visit Andrew’s bunk and a few minutes later came back with him. Andrew had tears in his eyes. He then told me what he’d told Jan: He was seeing occasional white, bright light in the nasal corner of his one “good” eye (he has no vision in the other). This was his third day seeing that light. He hadn’t wanted to say anything beforehand and “spoil our vacation.”

That load of bricks, that whole insidious worry we try not to think about, fell on us at once. Andrew has only one good eye because he was born prematurely (2 pounds, 3 ounces) and soon developed retinopathy of the premature. Surgery failed to save his left eye.

At 18, as a college freshman, in his dorm room one night, he felt like a window shade was being drawn down across his remaining eye. At 2 a.m. he decided he’d better call us, but, out of consideration, he waited till 6 a.m. to do so. After he did, we rushed to get him to Wills Eye. A wonderful surgeon reattached his retina.

My heart aches whenever I think of him lying by himself in the dark and waiting for dawn in his sweet, misguided courtesy. Alone and scared. What must that wait have been like for him?

We’ve had no similar scares since then. But we live in constantly suppressed fear that any day, out of nowhere, he may lose his vision, and we may be handed the responsibility of raising a child who is blind.

Now, Andrew sat beside us, having known three days ago he was experiencing a strange ocular sensation, but keeping it private because he knew how much this vacation meant to us. He obviously felt guilty for speaking up, but was fearful of what that light in the corner of his eye might mean. We certainly didn’t know either.

“Oh what a lump in the throat,” I wrote later to my friend Lynn Hoffman: “But we restrained our tears because we needed a plan. We couldn’t just jump in the car and drive to Wills Eye. We were trapped inside a train that was hurtling at 90 mph through rural N.C.”

I went to the porter (a lady) and asked what cities were coming up. The next city with a decent-sized hospital emergency room would be Columbia, S.C., at 2 a.m. That’s where we would go if necessary. The porter was very cooperative and told me to give her the word and they’d have an emergency ambulance ready at Columbia Station, if necessary.

We now had plan of sorts, not that we’d expect a small city hospital to have an ophthalmologist on call at 2 in the morning. But what should we do? The train wouldn’t reach Tampa for another 15 hours. The temptation toward taking action, some action, any action, drives the spirit at such times.

In the meantime, Janet was trying to track down Andrew’s eye doctor, but that’s not a number we keep in our wallets – though I guess we should. There’s no Internet on the train. Cell phone information, 4-blankin’-1-1, was not helpful and quite impatient, the operator sounding like she resented the intrusion on her time, even though we declared it an emergency. Finally, we thought to ask for the number of Philadelphia’s Wills Eye Hospital emergency room. The operator who answered there was mercifully kind. She found Andrew’s eye doctor’s number in Plymouth-Whitemarsh.

And guess what? We called the answering service and they beeped him and he returned our call within five minutes. You can imagine our relief at hearing Dr. Gary Brown’s kind and patient voice coming to us over a small silver cell phone. This as I watched our reflections in the windows, behind which the dark, uncaring foliage rushed by.

I repeated for Dr. Brown the symptoms Andrew described to me, concluding with, “Is this an emergency, Dr. Brown? Do we need to get off the train at the next stop?”

“Stay on the train ’til Tampa,” he said. He did not think Andrew’s condition would worsen in a matter of hours. He gave us the name of a top doc in Tampa, a former colleague. Tell him Gary Brown told us to call.

We tracked down the doctor’s answering service. He called back! We set an emergency appointment for the next day. Worried still, but calmed by having a plan, we sat back and tried in our hearts to brace for whatever fate the next day held.

The train pulled into Tampa’s Union Station at 12:30 p.m. Thursday. Jan and Andrew hopped a cab and went to see Dr. Mark Hammer.

I went to get the rental car. I got to the doctor’s office just as Andrew’s dilation from the drops kicked in. Andrew hates the exam as bright light pains him. He’d even needed general anesthesia last year for his annual. Boy does he yell and fuss. But four adults managed to get him through it.

And gloriously, he’s okay. His retina is healthy. Any number of lesser problems could cause the bright light sensation he’d been having. Make a follow-up appointment with Dr. Brown for when we get back. What a relief.

Dr. Hammer, by the way, went to nearby Abington High school, and we had several mutual acquaintances, most especially the legendary Dr. Allan Glatthorn. We left Dr. Hammer’s office a lot more relaxed than the way we went in.

By 4 p.m. that afternoon we were checked into La Quinta Inn outside St. Pete’s. Our nerves were overwrought. Our bodies still hummed from two days of rocking travel. The hotel reeked terribly of odor-cloaking fluids. My eyes were smarting and my nose burned from the terrible chemical smell.

Physically, I was miserable. But, unlike last night, our son wasn’t being threatened with imminent blindness tonight.

Tomorrow morning, I thought, we’ll go to see the Salvador Dali museum. “See” it – how precious the word.

And we did.

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