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The Battle to Save a Boy’s Sight
Comments () | Published May 1, 2008

Jallo explained his plan of attack to Bobby and his family.

Bobby said, “If that’s what we have to do to kill this thing, then let’s do it.”

Told that Bobby would be absent again, the Pallotti school offered a prayer for him with every morning announcement.

Jallo operated on Bobby again on March 8, about two months after the first surgery. He followed the same minimally invasive approach he’d taken the first time. Working up through Bobby’s nose and sinuses, he snipped and pulled out as much of the cyst as he could and drained the yellowish fluid that filled it. As he did so, Jallo could see the optic nerve reinflate as the pressure on it was alleviated. He checked and double-checked his work and finally was satisfied with what he saw.

This is it, he thought. It’s finished.

When Bobby woke up enough to look around the ICU, he realized that his sight had improved but wasn’t as sharp as it had been after the first surgery.

Not long after his release from the hospital, Bobby saw that his vision was worsening. In a matter of days, it grew dimmer, fuzzier, and narrower. In late March, about three weeks after the second surgery, a gray-colored dot loomed in the central vision of his right eye. In time, the dot expanded into a fuzzy-rimmed sphere large enough to block a big part of vision from his right eye.

An MRI revealed that the cyst, though somewhat smaller, again was pushing against the optic nerve and remained as threatening as it had been before. Jallo was stunned to realize he hadn’t been able to kill off or at least significantly reduce it. He’d never encountered anything like this before.

Jallo wanted Bobby to undergo radiation therapy, but he needed to wait until he had healed from the surgery.

In the meantime, Bobby tried to maintain as normal a life as he could. He continued to attend school, where his teachers made every accommodation possible. Now in the second semester of his junior year, he went regularly to the school’s learning center, where director Diane Kime and assistant Sheila Mudd read assignments and tests to him because his vision was so weakened that he couldn’t read normal-size print. When he had an essay to write, he would dictate it and Kime or Mudd would write it out for him. Kime sometimes stumbled when she tried to read trigonometry equations, and Bobby helped her through them.

At home, his parents spent evenings reading assignments to him. Bobby adapted to the new way of learning. Although he had always had to study hard for his grades, he continued to maintain nearly a 4.0 grade-point average.

Bobby had to listen carefully to understand questions and assignments read to him, and his hearing sharpened. At home he could hear his parents, certain they were out of earshot, whispering in another room.

“Better be careful,” he’d tell them. “I can hear everything you’re saying.”

Bobby knew his parents felt guilty even though he’d told them countless times they shouldn’t blame themselves for the fact that he’d kept his secret so well.

Once when he walked into a clinic to have his blood drawn, he stumbled. Helping him up, his mother couldn’t mask how bad she felt for him.

“Mom, I want you to stop worrying about me,” he told her. “One way or the other, I’m going to beat this thing.”

Bobby hadn’t fit in right away when he arrived at Pallotti his freshman year. Although happy to talk with anyone who approached him, he was too shy to strike up a conversation with someone he didn’t know. He had a small group of friends who had known him from St. Mary’s School, but he kept mostly to himself.

Now all the Pallotti students who knew Bobby and many who had never known him before wanted to help him. They monitored him in class and in the halls to make sure he didn’t fall or trip. A group Kime dubbed “Bobby’s brigade” always stood ready to usher him to and from his religion class in a building across the street.

When he missed a day or was in the hospital, members of his classes offered prayers for him. If teachers forgot, students reminded them.

“The students were not responding to Bobby’s disability,” Kime says. “They were responding to the kind of person he is.”

Bobby never wanted to appear diminished in front of his classmates, so he always tried to keep things light, dreaming up Spanish phrases—“The extraterrestrials have eaten the legs of my furniture.”

When his Spanish class planned a field trip to a nearby elementary school to read stories in Spanish to the youngsters, the teacher, Pat Evans—who felt that Bobby had a “third eye” that gave him a special sense of purpose—realized Bobby wanted to join his classmates even though he wouldn’t be able to participate. So she borrowed a digital camera and gave it to Bobby, saying, “We need someone to take pictures on the field trip.”

Bobby’s teachers never heard him complain, even when they could see the pain in his face. They called him the Energizer bunny because nothing seemed to get him down. When a headache was too painful to ignore, he would go to the principal’s office between classes to get aspirin or ibuprofen.

Student-activities director Patti Lutz heard him express regret only once. One day he said, “You know what I feel bad about?”

“What?” she replied.

“My mom keeps saying she wishes she could trade places with me, and I don’t want her to feel that way.”

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 05/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles