There had been hints that something might be happening to Bobby Sliko. He’d started to blink a lot during his freshman year of high school. His mother took him to the family pediatrician; an eye test found nothing wrong. His handwriting became harder to read. Bobby had played soccer in the Laurel Boys and Girls Club league since childhood, but in his sophomore year he told his parents he wanted to drop out.
In May 2006, days after Bobby’s 16th birthday, he and his father were driving to school.
“You’ll be able to get your driver’s license now,” his father said.
“I don’t think I’m going to,” Bobby replied.
“Don’t you want to drive?”
“No. I don’t think I’d be a very good driver.”
Bob Sliko was surprised by his son’s answer. Every 16-year-old wants a driver’s license. But he knew Bobby to be thoughtful and reasoned that his son’s reluctance might stem from his unwillingness to assume the responsibility of driving.
Bobby had always been an outstanding student, but his grades were slipping at the academically demanding St. Vincent Pallotti High School in Laurel. A teacher told his parents that Bobby was still adjusting to an academic load that included honors classes in Spanish, literature, and history.
Other hints surfaced, yet no one suspected that for more than two years Bobby had been losing his sight.
He had first noticed his peripheral vision narrowing in eighth grade, but he thought it might be from playing too many video games, so he stopped doing that. One morning a few months later, he woke with what seemed to be a gossamerlike veil in front of his eyes. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, hoping it would go away, but it grew worse. Soon black curtains began closing off his peripheral vision.
Bobby kept his secret locked inside, never letting on that the reason he had quit soccer was because he had a hard time following the ball. He convinced himself that he didn’t want to worry his parents and that he hated the idea of wearing glasses. But deep down, Bobby harbored a fear that he might be going blind, and he was too scared to tell anyone.
By his junior year in the fall of 2006, Bobby’s vision was “like looking down a tunnel with a screen door in front of it,” he recalls. He could still discern colors, but clock faces were no longer decipherable. He’d been an avid reader from early childhood, finishing Harry Potter novels in a day. Now he could no longer read science fiction, history, or the Japanese samurai-warrior comic books he and his younger brother, Matt, loved.
Bobby did everything he could in school to compensate. He took care not to trip on stairs or bump into things when he walked the corridors of Pallotti. Sitting in the front row of classes so he could hear better and see things on the blackboard, he managed to maintain nearly a 3.8 grade-point average. He played baritone saxophone in the school band, leaning in until the sheet music was inches from his face. He had a hard time distinguishing people as they approached him in the hall, so he learned to identify them by their voices. Although shy, Bobby had a number of friends who prized him for his kindness and sense of humor.
“Bobby’s the one person I know who I’ve never heard curse or ever speak ill of anyone, even in a joking way,” says Andrew Townsend, a friend since seventh grade. “That’s rare in a competitive place like Pallotti.”
In a religion class sophomore year, recalls Bobby’s friend and fellow band member Mary Dzwonchyk, students were discussing the concept of heaven when one said, “If anyone’s going to heaven, it’s Bobby. If he doesn’t get in, then we’re all screwed.”
“Bobby’s sense of humor is unique,” Dzwonchyk says. “He’s always making up his own little jokes in Spanish, and he loves them.”
Bobby had begun studying Spanish in sixth grade and had developed a good accent and vocabulary. His Spanish teacher, Pat Evans, considered herself and Bobby to be “word nerds” because they always wanted to learn new ones.
Bobby enjoyed mining his Spanish vocabulary to dream up bizarre sentences to spring on his friends.
“Ayudame por favor—los monos volando estan robando mi queso!” he’d say.
Translation: “Help me, please—the flying monkeys are stealing my cheese.”
One day in the late fall of 2006, Bobby’s mother, Judy, a fifth-grade teacher in the Prince George’s County school system, popped her head into Bobby’s room to call him for dinner. She saw him quickly click the large, 72-point type on his computer back down to 14-point.
“We’ve got to get Bobby’s eyes checked,” Judy told her husband, Bob.
Bob agreed. He said he’d noticed that Bobby was having difficulty seeing his math assignments.
On Friday, December 15, Bob—an electrical engineer who works for Lockheed Martin at NASA’s Goddard Space Center—drove Bobby to see Sami Ghannam, an optometrist on Main Street in Laurel.
Ghannam, who did some of his training at the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins, put Bobby through a series of tests. Strong lenses only slightly improved his visual acuity, and Ghannam’s unease grew.
“I’m having some trouble with my peripheral vision,” Bobby confided before Ghannam asked him to fix his gaze on the knot of his tie.
Ghannam then held his hand off to the side and asked Bobby how many fingers he was holding up. Anyone with normal vision would be able to see them, but Bobby couldn’t. Ghannam moved his hands closer to Bobby’s line of sight.
“I still don’t see them,” Bobby said.