In the Emergency Room, that’s how my friend Jeffrey described to me the slow motion of instantaneous events he experienced when the bottle-rocket blew apart his eye. It made sense. The flash of the retina being compressed, before the anterior chamber ruptured and spilled its clear contents on his cheek. Then the blood from the explosion of vessels and tissues deeper in the eye. Next the shearing of the optic nerve leading to darkness. And finally the activation of pain impulses. Then… then the sound wave, slower than both light and electricity, arrived at his eardrums, and he heard the explosion. Like the delay of thunder arriving after the lightning. His body buckled forward. All within a split second.
He wasn’t using the fireworks. And they weren’t being used by kids. He was just one of the adults standing around at a party while everyone “enjoyed” the fireworks. Light. Noise. The smell of gunpowder. Laughter suddenly gone still.
On an island where you’re the only ophthalmologist, you don’t have the hope of calling in a detached colleague to do the surgery on your friend. I told Jeffery it was serious. That I would do everything possible to put the pieces of his exploded eyeball back together. That he would need more surgery later. And that his chances for recovering any vision were slim. He was 21, right out of college, a volunteer teacher at one of the schools. He thought of the life ahead of him without the sight of one eye, and sobbed. He was my friend. I put my hand on his shoulder. It was the first year of my career. I wasn’t yet 30.
He spent the next seven hours under general anesthesia while I pieced together his mangled eye. Microsurgery. Sutures smaller than human hair. I used package after package of 10-0 nylon suture, 9-0 nylon suture, 8-0 nylon suture. “How many stitches,” everyone wants to know. Probably a thousand. You just stop counting. Within the first hour, I knew his vision was lost, but I didn’t have the heart to remove his eye. Better it be done at a tertiary care center where there would be no doubt that everything humanly possible had been done to save that eye.
As the sun rose, I walked out of surgery into the tropical half-light, drained and exhausted. Before we went into the operating room he had given me his parents’ phone number. “Call them for me,” he had asked. Now it was up to me to break the news to them. I had to pull them out of President Clinton’s Inaugural Ball to take the call. They were thankful.
Within a day, they had flown Jeffrey to Manhattan Eye and
Jeffery has a glass eye in his empty socket. He looks normal. But he wears glasses every waking second of his life. They're there to protect his remaining eye from the harrowing possibility of a stray rock, or finger, or shattered windshield, or elbow or gunpowder propelled projectile, snuffing out his sight. No spare left. A lifetime in darkness.
I’m happy -- no, eager -- to give up one small aspect of all of my celebrations: fireworks. Their joyful sounds will never be enough to drown out the sobs of a person losing an eye. It’s not a common occurrence, but it’s not a rare one either. I hear those sobs every single year.
Ban the fireworks.