Autobiographical Essays

Beate Caspari-Rosen, MD (1910 - 1995)

A Modern Greek Tragedy

At the end of the Second World War I was working as an ophthalmologist in a children’s’ eye clinic run by the New York City Health Department in a neighborhood bordering on Harlem and Columbia University. My nurse was a good looking young woman with a mass of reddish golden hair and a skin complexion that goes with it. She knew how to handle the little patients and had the confidence of their parents. She was married to a man about five years her senior, who was extremely good looking and charming. He was by profession a quite successful photographer, but several years before I met him he had started to complain of severe headaches. They were misdiagnosed until he started to lose his vision. He had developed a severe case of glaucoma and the increased pressure in the eyes had pressed on the optic nerves causing the onset of their atrophy, a typical history of acute glaucoma. By the time I met him he was almost completely blind. He had gone through several  operations, which had caused severe scarring but did not help him to regain his vision. This happened long before the development of  laser beam treatment. He was extremely intelligent, but had never completed his college education. By then he was forty-one years old. He and wife both decided that she would work full time as a nurse, her profession from which she had retired when she become pregnant. Her daughter was three years old and could attend kindergarten in a nearby school. He applied to Columbia University, which gave him a full scholarship. His positive approach to life and his magnetic personality attracted many co—students, who became enthusiastic helpful readers for him and with his astonishing memory he was able to learn the subject matter. He graduated summa cum laude at the top of his class. These years were especially difficult for my nurse. After work when she came home, there were always a group of people gathered around her husband, and a small daughter who needed all her attention, not to mention household, shopping and cooking. The couple had, however, a very good friend, an older woman physician, whom they had known for many years and who probably assisted them financially.

About this  time my nurse developed some vague symptoms. She was tired, had some pain in her shoulder joints, was listless, and easily upset. She developed a small nodule in her axilla which was removed and declared “good natured.” Several internists and neurologists examined her. Since no pathology was identified, a diagnosis of a psychosomatic illness was made; this is or was a diagnosis physician rendered when a an underlying pathology could not be found. After all, had she not been under great stress for many years? (In fact, she  probably had anylorophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which was hardly known at that time.)

In the meantime, her husband decided to work towards a master's degree in psychology, and within one year he finished his course work. At last, the hard times seemed to be over.

During that period I attended regular lectures in ophthalmology. One surgeon who lectured had greatly impressed me. I advised the couple to contact him in order to find out whether surgery might help him regain some of his vision. He had a consultation, and was told that the condition of one eye was hopeless, but that the other eye, although it had a cataract, still seemed to have a healthy nerve. Surgery was advised, but he decided  to wait until he had completed  his university degree. Which he did.

Now at last, he was ready to take the step and was admitted to the New York Eye and Ear Hospital. I was told later, that the surgeon, who was a devout Catholic, had gone into a small hospital chapel to pray before going into the operating room. The operation was successful. When the bandages were removed several days later, he recognized forms and with the help of a correcting lens  he recognized faces. After a week he was sent home, with the operated eye still covered with a bandage.

Their doctor friend took him into her office and took off the bandage in order to test his vision with her reading chart. I still do not know how the accident occurred, but somehow he walked into a sharp projecting instrument that was in his path; it  penetrated his eyeball. He was rushed immediately to the hospital where an emergency operation was performed to save some of the vision in the injured eye. The operation was successful. He could see large objects and read some large print with the use of a correcting lens.

He opened a private office soon afterwards, and immediately developed a large practice. They moved to a pleasant apartment on the East Side and their financial difficulties were a thing of the past. My nurse gave up her position in my clinic and I lost touch with them. Some time later I heard that she was in a wheelchair, and died soon after, I believe. Once I saw him on Madison Avenue; he again used his white cane which he had discarded a long time ago. I realized that he would not be able to recognize me and so I slowly passed him by.


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