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The Difference Between God and a Surgeon

How one father’s worst nightmare—a horrifying accident involving his child—was transformed by the skill of a brilliant doctor

(page 2 of 4)

Two hours and 40 minutes after the accident, we managed, with Deborah Fishman’s and, less directly, Peter Lewy’s help, to deliver Grace into the hands of Peter Rabiah, a pediatric ophthalmologist affiliated with Children’s and Evanston Northwestern Healthcare. Another huge factor was our Cigna insurance card, plastically representing a policy issued for free by my employer, the Art Institute of Chicago, whose plan is handled by Fred Novy. For a bimonthly payroll deduction of $115.60, my family is covered as well. Once Grace’s primary care physician (Lewy) set the ball rolling, whoever saw Grace after that, and whatever procedure he or she performed, would be covered.


It turned out that Dr. Rabiah was only up our way because of a weekly staff meeting at Glenbrook Hospital. Normally he was off duty by five, but the meeting ran long for some reason. His colleagues and nurses and office staff had all gone home as he waited for us in his suite of dark offices. Medium height and build, pale olive skin, balding, dark hair, visibly tired at the end of a long day and week-the most beautiful person we’d ever laid eyes on. We introduced ourselves and thanked him profusely for being there.

“Let me have a look.”

But Grace wouldn’t let him, at least not in the ways and from all the angles he wanted to. She was simply too scared, in too much pain, to sit still for her third doctor, especially after we had promised during the previous consultations that each was the last one she would have to submit to. She was also getting hungry and thirsty. Even with both parents reassuring her while trying to hold her in place, Rabiah was unable to examine her thoroughly. There were drops he wanted to put in, a device he wanted to use. Nothing doing. By simply covering Grace’s left eye with his hand, however, he was able to determine that she had zero vision in the right. After looking a little while longer, cocking his head this way and that, he told us, “She has two full-thickness corneal lacerations, one at about the 12-o’clock position and one at about two o’clock. The lacerations are midperipheral, and her-”  


“Not directly over the visual axis, though it’s close.”

 Bewildered and crazed, I just nodded.

“The anterior chamber is shallow,” he said, “though formed. Some iris strands have prolapsed into the two lacerations, where they’ve become incarcerated.” His soft-spoken voice made all this easier to understand but also more devastating. I could tell it was killing my wife. But we listened; he talked. He needed to put Grace under general anesthesia to thoroughly examine the eye and try to repair it.

Now we gaped at him, begging for promises, answers, predictions. This was a seasoned pediatric ophthalmologist, an exquisitely talented surgeon, and Grace’s only hope. He was not optimistic. “This is a serious open-globe injury,” he told us in a not-quite-neutral tone of voice. “The visual prognosis is guarded.” As Jennifer put Grace’s coat on her in the waiting area, he also had no choice but to hold my gaze for a few extra beats: “You need to be aware that children this age can die under general anesthesia.”

We sat with Grace on a couch as Rabiah called Evanston Hospital and reserved an operating room. “Evanston Hospital has a more sophisticated trauma center,” he said.

Rabiah in his car and we in ours, we drove the ten miles to Evanston. I didn’t tell Jennifer what Rabiah had said about anesthesia. She understood that already, didn’t need to hear those foul words. We were altogether helpless in this good doctor’s hands, but we knew we were lucky to be there. If Fishman had reached him ten minutes later, he would have been out the door, headed home or to a restaurant, starting his weekend with a vodka martini perhaps, effectively shunting Grace’s blind eye under the knife of a junior associate.

Grace didn’t believe us, of course, when we promised her that the next stop would be the last of the night. I wasn’t that certain myself.  

At Evanston, Jennifer did most of the signing and talking. She knew the story of the injury firsthand, as well as the embarrassing fact that Grace’s dad couldn’t bear to think about the hideous details, let alone repeat them for every new “intake specialist” who strolled into the room. I was frantic to get the surgery under way but impotent to make anything happen. Not dropping Grace was the extent of my usefulness.

We were soon introduced to a confident, muscular young guy with a gleaming brown skull, big white teeth, and ripped ‘ceps emerging from his short-sleeved hospital top. He wore a chain around his neck-no delicate links to display a modest crucifix or St. Christopher medal, but a chunky inch-wide affair fitted tightly below his Adam’s apple. Was this hard, kinky brother the orderly charged with wheeling our vulnerable daughter into the operating room? No, he was Dr. Rouse, who’d be assisting Dr. Rabiah in the surgery. The anesthesiologist was an Egyptian-looking guy who resembled Omar Sharif, only stockier. He pressed us to be precise about when Grace had eaten last. (2:30 p.m.) What? (Birthday cake.) How much? (Just one piece.) At last an orderly with no chains of any sort around her neck arrived to wheel Grace through the door, beyond which Peter Rabiah was waiting.  

How annihilatingly ridiculous it was for me to pray that the surgery would be successful, though I caught myself doing it, after a fashion at least. That very afternoon I had written in an article for Esquire magazine: “Religion evolved to help us cope with poverty, imprisonment, fear of death, and other bad things, and that’s fine. But is some white-bearded guy named Jehovah or Olodumare, God or Allah really out there? In here? On a throne up in heaven, above and to the left of Cloud 9?” But that’s pretty much where I was aiming my supplications. Nor could I help picturing Grace on the table, face-up under a microscope, eye pulled wide open and cut, surrounded by three dark strange men and all those damn lights and equipment. Two hours later, Rabiah comes out to report the initial results. Neither optimism nor pessimism colors his voice. “She has a long haul ahead of her, but her retina was untouched, and her lens, while traumatized, was intact.” He’d been able to inject a gel into her eye, he says, to rebuild the cornea and help it begin to repressurize.



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