Janet Gilmore, of Chestnut Hill, and her son, Andrew, endure that agonizing wait in the Wills Eye Hospital waiting room last week. Andrew was waiting for emergency surgery to save his one good eye. (Photo by Hugh Gilmore)

by Janet Gilmore

On Thursday, May 17, our son, Andrew, who has vision only in his right eye, complained that he’d had “floaters” in his eye for two days. Floaters are not usually dangerous, but if they come on quickly in clusters, it would be wise to have them checked out. In our case, given Andrew’s history of retina detachments in both eyes (a result of his premature birth), it would be more than wise; it was a medical necessity. We made a quick appointment for him to be seen the following morning at the Huntington Valley office of one of the Wills Eye Hospital retina specialists.

On Friday the ophthalmologist who saw Andrew checked him out, even doing an ultrasound, and said he’d be okay. Just floaters, even the small dark one that annoyed Andrew when he was reading. But come back Tuesday, the doctor said, just in case, and see Dr. Carl Regillo, Chief of Retina Service at Wills Eye Hospital.

And thus we found ourselves in the Huntington Valley office of Dr. Regillo, who had seen Andrew before and knew about his eye problems. Regillo did another ultrasound scan of Andrew’s eye and determined that there were, indeed, several floaters, which are not sight-threatening since the retina looked attached.

“The scan looks okay, but let me know if anything changes,” he said.

Then Andrew, who is usually quite shy and retiring, surprised us all by saying, “Dr. Regillo, I’m thinking I’m NOT okay because I have this one bigger bubble that’s not going away, and I can’t read.”

And with that statement, my wonderful son saved his own vision. Dr. Regillo stopped right there and said to his assistant, “I want him to have an OCT.” (Optical Coherence Tomography is a technique used for imaging the retina in more detail and clarity than an MRI.) Fifteen minutes later, the images were ready. Dr. Regillo came into the room, looked at the screen and said at once, “This is serious. His retina is detaching. This is surgery. I want it done today.

“How long ago did you eat?” he asked Andrew, who said, “7:30 this morning.” The doctor left the room and came back five minutes later: “Surgery will be this afternoon as soon as you’re cleared for anesthesia. Go downtown to Wills Eye right away.”

To think we thought we’d be at the Fairlane Diner on Bethlehem Pike eating pancakes this morning! We rushed down to center city, but hospital time is never the same as regular time. Surgery scheduled for 1:30 p.m. began at 4 p.m. We’d been mercifully added to a full schedule of surgery patients.

In a hospital, it’s normal to be separated from your loved ones, take off your clothes, change into a hospital gown, lie on a bed in the middle of the day and voluntarily wait for someone to cut into you.

A nurse came to take Andrew’s vital signs, get him to sign some forms and start an IV. We started talking, and it turned out that both the nurse and Andrew were BIG fans of the animated program “Animaniacs,” a VERY funny animated comedy television series that Andrew and I watched in the 1990s.

A while later, an anesthesiologist came to tell us that she wasn’t sure whether Andrew would get sedation or general anesthesia. They didn’t want the patient to wiggle during a sensitive eye operation. (Neither did I, of course.)

While we were waiting, Andrew and I had talked about everything we could think of, and Hugh, my husband, had been in the waiting room for over an hour with no news from either of us. Finally, after all the waiting, after all the nurses and doctors came to talk to us, to the point that I was embarrassed not to remember all their names any more, came the moment when Dr. Berkowitz, the anesthesiologist, came to Andrew’s bed, and it was time to begin his surgery.

My heart was pounding. Andrew had an IV line in his arm. His “blankie” was tucked under his head for comfort. The anesthesiologist, Dr. Berkowitz, said, “Okay, Andrew, I’m going to start the anesthestia now.” And I thought of something the wonderful author, Louise Penny, wrote in AARP magazine about her husband Michael’s dementia:

“Every morning and every evening, when we’re alone, I whisper in Michael’s ear. That he is magnificent. He is brave. He is handsome and brilliant and kind. That I am so happy to be his wife. I tell him that he is safe and is loved. And he smiles.”

I began to whisper a clumsy improvised version of that message in Andrew’s ear: “I love you. Dad loves you. Dr. Berkowitz loves you (smile from Dr. Berkowitz). Bugs Bunny loves you. The Animaniacs love you. You are very brave. You are magnificent. Everything will be okay. I love you…”

Dr. Berkowitz took a moment to say, “Don’t worry, we’ll take good care of him.”

They did.

The spot went away. Most of the floaters floated away. Time for pancakes again.