By Ava Kikut
Scheie Vision Annual Report 2017
On July 1, 2000, 22-year-old Stacy Young was at an Independence Day barbecue when she heard a loud boom. Stacy had just begun her nursing career, she had a two-year-old son, and she had plans to continue building her family. But what followed would forever change the course of her life. The sound had come from an industrial firework, about the size of a two-liter bottle, which was launched a hundred yards away. It traveled at over 250 miles per hour and exploded about six inches from Stacy’s face.
Stacy was medevaced to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. The firework had fractured her skull in five places and damaged her frontal lobe. Her left orbital bones were shattered and her left optic nerve was completely severed. She had lost high volumes of blood and was put on life support.
On July 2, Stacy had a craniotomy. Over 25 postage stamp sized titanium plates were used to repair her skull. On July 13, surgeons removed her left eye and used part of her left rib to reconstruct the orbital socket. “The doctors didn’t really have much to work with and they created my face again,” Stacy remarked.
In the first few weeks after the accident, Stacy struggled to confront what had happened to her. “I was scared,” she remembered. “There’s a thing that goes on when you’re hurt that badly. Nothing makes much sense, other than you’re away. And you don’t know where you are or what’s going on.” In addition to the shock from the trauma, Stacy was suffering from frontal lobe damage, which was causing emotional confusion, severe migraines, and quivering on one side of her body. Due to the loss of her left eye and damage to her right eye, Stacy had become legally blind. “I could see a donut, a real thin ring. Nothing was clear,” she explained. Stacy realized she could no longer work as a nurse. “Nobody was sure if I was going to be able to work at all,” she explained.
While in rehabilitation, Stacy met another patient who had also undergone numerous treatments. “He said to me, ‘The day you lose hope is the day your cards are folded,’” Stacy recalled. As she began to gain clarity, Stacy remembered those words. “I realized I needed to start focusing and stop fighting.” She committed to never losing hope. “Some days I would hurt from the top of my head to my knees. I would say ‘I got this. It might hurt today but it’s going to be better. I might not see well today but maybe I will see better tomorrow.’”
When Stacy returned home, she found a strong network of support ready to help her move forward. “There were people in the community that came around, and family, that did everything.” Stacy’s family members provided childcare and microwavable meals and drove her to doctor’s visits. Her colleagues organized a toy drive for her son. Her friends learned how to replace her head bandages. And then there were the acts of kindness from unexpected places, like from the hairdresser who washed and moisturized her scalp twice a week to prevent the craniotomy scar from scaling. “People came through,” Stacy said. “It’s amazing the small things you remember—the people that promised me they’d never leave and they haven’t.”
Though Stacy’s facial reconstructive surgeries were largely successful, there was still work to be done to try and improve her vision. In March 2001, Dr. Albert Maguire, a retina and vitreous specialist at the Scheie Eye Institute, performed a vitrectomy on Stacy’s right eye. As she waited for him to remove the bandages, she heard him say. “Now you’re going to see something. You’re going to see a little bit of bright light.” When Stacy opened her eyes, the first thing she saw was Dr. Maguire’s eyes. “I remember telling him he had the prettiest eyes I’d ever seen in my life. Because I hadn’t seen anything for so long and then the first thing I see is that man’s eyes.”
Stacy’s vision opened up, and improved to 20/250. But she was still legally blind, and for the next 16 years, the world would remain blurry. “I could tell you the grass is green. That’s because it was a green blob,” she said.
One of the sights Stacy missed most was the face of her son. She often asked him to come close to her so she could make out the details in his face. “I could sit down and say, ‘Let me be a mom. I want to look at your face.’ And he would get right in my face and smile and show me his teeth. And he would pucker up and show me his kiss lips. And he would show me the side of his nose and the front of his nose. And he would show me his eyes. And I would ask him about his dimples and he would smile and show me his dimples. And he would investigate my face to see if I got any more booboos.”
Stacy eventually began to embrace the new course of her life. “After the accident my mom would say she knew I was in there, I just needed to find my way out,” she explained. Not only did Stacy re-establish a sense of normalcy, she found a deeper appreciation for life and the people around her. “Since I got hurt I listen more. I laugh. And when I laugh I laugh with all of me…I don’t take things for granted. So when I tell someone I’m listening, I truly am listening. When I tell someone I understand it’s because I do.”
Though she could no longer work as a nurse, Stacy began working in a transitional living facility for drug and alcohol recovering homeless veterans. “I may not understand the military part but I understand the fears they talk about. I know what it feels like to be lost and try and bring it back together and nobody else believes in you but you’ve got to try and believe in yourself,” she explained. Stacy has continued to work at the facility for 14 years, despite her low vision and chronic migraines.
Though the vitrectomy had risen Stacy’s visual acuity to a functional level, her vision began to decline over time. For years, surgical intervention seemed too high a risk for her only remaining eye. In 2015, the dislocation of Stacy’s lens had become substantial and she had developed a cataract that was becoming denser. By the summer of 2016, Stacy and Dr. Maguire agreed that the potential benefits of another operation outweighed the risks.
Dr. Maguire introduced Stacy to Dr. Stephen Orlin, a cataract surgeon at Scheie. “Dr. Orlin is the most patient man,” Stacy said. “They are the most patient people with me. And they never lied.” The plan was for Dr. Maguire to make an incision on the side of Stacy’s eye to remove her lens and for Dr. Orlin to implant a new lens. They could not promise Stacy the surgery would work, but it was worth trying.
Not only was the lens replacement successful, the improvement to Stacy’s vision far exceeded expectations. “I have far better vision now than they ever thought I would have. I didn’t know Dr. Maguire and Dr. Orlin had teeth. They’re very stoic men. They don’t smile too much. But they smiled.” While Stacy is still legally blind, she can now see more vividly than even before the cataract. “I can tell there are leaves on the hedges behind my house. I can tell there are petals on flowers. I can tell there are lines on the sidewalk. I can see faces. For 17 years nobody had a face.”
After the operation, Stacy saw her nearly 18-year-old son’s face for the first time since he was a toddler. Her family, who “learned a lot of adjectives describing the world for 17 years,” no longer had to say what was in front of her. “They have seen me smile more, and surprised more, and giggle more, and see people that I haven’t seen—not just know they are in front of me but actually see them. It’s been a lot of fun. And I can’t wait to do it more.”
In the summer of 2000, Stacy was forced to accept the redirection of her career and personal life. But she refused to let go of two essential things—a sense of humor and resilience. After nearly two decades of saying “tomorrow might be the day,” Stacy feels her tomorrow has happened. “I’ve had the fire on my face. But I’ve been surrounded by some of the greatest doctors, who have given me hope,” she said. “Hope is everything. Never lose hope. Never lose faith in the people you have around you.”