On the day after Christmas 1944, in a corner of what became one of the most fiercely fought battles of World War II, a German mine blew up in Sergeant Harold Urick’s face. It left him totally blind and he stayed that way for 48 years.
Harold’s unit, the 303rd Engineers, had just crossed the redoubtable German defensive barrier, the Siegfried Line, when they were ordered to dig up and defuse mines.
He remembers every detail. “It was a bitterly cold day and the ground was frozen hard. There was a man on each side of me as we moved forward. I saw the mine – it was one of the small ones they used, just about a quarter pound — and began digging it up very carefully with my bayonet. Suddenly I slipped on the icy ground. There was an explosion and everything went dark. I put my hands on my face. ‘My God, I thought, what am I going to do now?’
“Most of all in those early days, I worried about Jean. I was 21 and we’d been married just over a year. I thought of it over and over. Instead of the life we’d dreamed of when the war was over, I was going to be a burden to her all her life.”
He was flown to a military hospital in Valley Forge and then back home to Cleveland. One eye was so badly damaged that it to be taken out and a prosthetic one put in its place. With the other he could see just a patch of light.
He spent two years in a therapy school and then, with the dogged courage that has defined his life, started a physical therapy business of his own. “But people weren’t as affluent then and it didn’t take,” he says. He worked for several years at the Cleveland Clinic and then for another 15 at a snack bar managed by the Cleveland Sight Center.
In the meantime, he and Jean had five children and seven grandchildren, none of whom he had ever seen. The family was central to his life. He went to almost every high school and college football game his son, Jeff, played in. “My wife would tell me what was going on. I just wanted to be there.”
But his sight didn’t improve. “I went to three or four ophthalmologists over the years but all of them said they couldn’t do anything for me. Then one day in 1992 I was listening to a television program and I heard a doctor talking about transplanting corneas. I didn’t know what to think but I went back to the eye doctors. They weren’t encouraging until one of them said, ‘I know a doctor who does these. I think you should go to him.’
“That’s how I met Dr. Philip Shands at Kaiser Permanente. ‘Yes,’ he told me, ‘I do these. Do you want to try?’ ‘You bet,’ I said. ‘What do I have to lose?’”
Shands had then been in practice for only a year or two and was unsure himself about how much he could help. “The prosthetic eye we could do nothing about, of course. But when I examined the other one, I could see a small bit of the iris which, when we shone a light on it, constricted a little. Then, using ultrasound and other tests, it appeared as though the retina and other structures inside the eye were intact.”
With this encouragement, Harold was put on the waiting list and told it would probably take three or four months before they had a cornea for him. “You might think I’d be on pins and needles all that time but I wasn’t. Most of the time I didn’t think about it, probably because he exuded so much confidence,” he recalls.
Just before Thanksgiving, he was called in and, with great care, Shands removed the badly damaged cornea and other scarred tissue, implanted an artificial lens to focus the light and sewed in the donated cornea. In about an hour it was all over, Harold remembers. “‘Are you done?’ I asked him. ‘Yep,’ he said ‘but you’ll have to wait until tomorrow morning when we remove the bandages.’
“The next day, when he began to take them off, I was lying face down on the bed and the first thing I saw were his shoes – the first things I’d seen in 48 years – then his pants. I looked up and saw he was wearing glasses. It was still a bit fuzzy, but they’d warned me it would take a while.
“Then I looked down the bed and there was Jean, looking as pretty as she did when I first met her. Then I looked at Yvonne, my oldest daughter. It was the first time I’d ever seen her face. And she was beautiful, too.”
He had some shocks too, such as how big airplanes had become and how fast cars went. In a few months his sight had improved so that he could pass the driver’s test and read just about anything he wanted. “Since then we’ve only had to fine-tune the prescriptions for his glasses, just like any normal aging person,” Shands says. “With them on he has 20/25 vision. Like all corneal recipients, he takes small amounts of immune-suppressants but has never had a period of rejection.”
The other patients Shands treats have much less dramatic stories. “This was a once-in-a-career case,” he says. “But vision is the faculty people fear losing most and, with success rates of over 90 percent for those who are legally blind, cornea transplants reopen a world they thought they had lost forever.”
All his life Harold has treasured the little things. Now it’s being able to walk through a restaurant to find a table or waving at friends across the street. He can still see with only one eye but goes to baseball games regularly and doesn’t need a running commentary. And at 86, he still bowls and plays golf.
“But best of all is being able to see the whole family,” he says. “That was the hardest thing all those years. Now I have everything I want.”
From “The Gift that Heals,” by Reg Green, published by AuthorHouse, 2007, (www.authorhouse.com).