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

About three weeks into the radiation therapy, Bobby became fatigued and sick to his stomach. At week four, he began losing circles of hair where the radiation beams were directed.

There was one event Bobby was determined not to miss: Pallotti’s junior prom on May 5 and the postprom party at Dave & Buster’s in North Bethesda. It was another of Bobby’s ways to let himself and everyone else know he was still Bobby.

After the prom, Bobby approached the long escalator at White Flint Mall to get to Dave & Buster’s. It was out of order, so he had to climb it step by step. The steps weren’t evenly spaced, and Bobby stumbled. He righted himself, took a couple of steps, and fell again, hard this time, cutting his arm. He stumbled a third time even as students went to help him. Bobby told them he was fine, but his resolve to maintain a happy façade in front of his friends was beginning to fray.

Bobby’s father was on the second floor when he saw the blood on Bobby’s arm and knee as his son climbed up the escalator. The school had asked that at least one of Bobby’s parents attend the postprom party, and both had come. Bob ran to get Judy, and together they hurried to find bandages.

Patti Lutz had seen Bobby’s stumbles and read the emotion welling up in his face. When he reached the top, she walked over to him, took his arm, and said, “Come with me, Bobby.”

Eighteen years earlier, Lutz had been diagnosed with a pituitary tumor and had undergone radiation therapy. She and Bobby had talked about their shared medical experiences, and although her vision had been spared, she understood some of what he was going through.

“One of the things I learned from my tumor,” Lutz says, “is that many feelings build up inside you, and you have to give yourself some time to be mad and even a little time to feel sorry for yourself, as long as you don’t let it control you.”

Lutz found an empty storage room at Dave & Buster’s. She ushered Bobby inside and then faced him.

“It’s not fair, is it, Bobby?” she asked.

Bobby had resisted feeling he’d been cheated, but he sometimes found himself thinking wistfully of his friends and all they could do. Being normal again seemed agonizingly unreachable. At first he was hesitant to answer, but Lutz prodded him: “Let it out, Bobby, let it out.”

“No,” he said softly, “it’s not fair.”

“Are you mad about it?”

“Yes, I’m mad.”

“You have every right to be mad about this, Bobby, and there’s a difference between feeling sorry for yourself and being mad.”

Bobby felt months of hurt and frustration boil up inside him. His lips quivered, and his eyes filled.

“It’s just you and me here, Bobby. Don’t hold it in.”

For the first time in his ordeal, Bobby broke down as Lutz held him.

Bobby’s parents had returned with bandages. When they saw Bobby and Lutz, they joined in the embrace.

When they had dried their eyes, Lutz stepped back and said, “Bobby, this is going to be a great night. Now it’s time to go have fun.”

Bobby felt as if a weight had been lifted. He joined his friends at the party, where they laughed and played until 5 in the morning, when buses took them back to the school.

Bobby’s radiation treatments—30 in all—ended on May 22. To celebrate, Judy and Bob brought in cakes for the radiology technicians and patients, and that evening the family ate at Phillips seafood restaurant in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. They also took Bobby to the St. Jude’s Shrine in Baltimore for a blessing.

The next day, Pallotti held its annual honors assembly, at which top students are cited for excellence in various subjects. Bobby’s religion teacher, Sue Wiedel, selected him for the award, which she said honored not only his academic achievement but also his “faith, determination, and courage.”

Students usually responded politely when the winners were announced. But when principal Steve Edmonds announced that Bobby had won the religion award, the 140 students in the junior class stood and burst into applause and cheers, prompting students in the other classes to stand and clap.

Sitting in the bleachers with the other students, Bobby was surprised when his name was announced. He walked over to receive his gold pin and sat next to Wiedel at the front of the crowded gym. A few days before, Wiedel had told Bobby’s parents about the award on the condition that they not tell him. She now told Bobby they were in the audience.

“My mother’s crying, isn’t she?” Bobby asked.

“I don’t know where your mom is,” Wiedel said.

“She’ll be sitting next to a weird-looking kid who would be my brother.”

Wiedel looked out at the audience.

“Okay, I found her,” she said. “Yes, she’s crying.”

Bobby laughed.

Bobby’s vision grew steadily worse. He became unnerved when it began to fluctuate—sharper one day than the next, sometimes changing in the course of a day. One day he could see faces clearly, the next they’d be a blur. One day his right eye was stronger, the next day his left.

Sometimes when he wrote a school paper on his home computer, his vision would deteriorate so quickly that he’d have to enlarge the type size halfway through. Judy contacted Dr. Jallo, who explained that the rapid changes were likely the result of the fluctuating pressures that the cyst exerted on Bobby’s optic nerve.

The ebb and flow of his vision meant Bobby constantly had to assess and adjust—he never knew what the next day, or even the next hour, would bring. Every morning, he looked in the mirror to check how well he could see, at least for the moment. He rolled his eyes to exercise them and rubbed them to see if that would help, but it didn’t.

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