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
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.