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Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘manhattan’

The Bellevue Death Ray, Revisited

Man, what a place Bellevue Hospital must’ve been back in the day. It was crazy enough in MY day in the mid-1980′s. Bellevue is arguably the most famous hospital in the world, famous mostly for the treatment of psychiatric patients, and made all the more famous by the Christmas movie “The Miracle on 49th St.” in which Santa Claus was institutionalized in one of Bellevue’s top floors. For those of you who don’t know Bellevue Hospital, the top six floors of a 30 floor tower were (are?) reserved for psychiatric patients, at least one of them for psychiatric patients who hail from Rikers Island.

I’m not really sure why, but I’ve been thinking a lot about Bellevue recently. My experiences as an ophthalmologist in private practice in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio really have exactly nothing in common with my experiences as an ophthalmology resident on the lower East Side of New York City. Nonetheless Bellevue has been on my mind. Since I’ve been thinking about it I thought I’d share some stories about Bellevue and about my time as a resident at all of the NYU hospitals. This will also give me an opportunity to introduce you to some very special, very interesting characters whose lives crossed paths with mine.

Irwin Siegel was an optometrist with multiple roles at Bellevue Hospital. His most important role for me and my fellow residents was to teach us about optics and refraction, the science and technique of prescribing glasses and contact lenses. Dr. Siegel was also a noted researcher in the diagnosis and treatment of retinal diseases, specifically diseases of the macula or center of the retina; there is actually a syndrome named after Dr. Siegel and two of his partners.

Dr. Siegel was a fascinating man, especially fascinating to a child of suburbia like me. The prototypical New Yorker, Dr. Siegel lived his entire life in Brooklyn and Manhattan. He did not own a car, and used some form of public transportation for more than 95% of his travels. You got the sense that any forays outside the island of Manhattan were viewed as akin to a ride on the “Heart of Darkness” express. The guy simply reeked of New York, and he spent his entire professional career at Bellevue Hospital.

Recall that my life’s memories are wrapped up in eyecare, optics, and the optical industry. My father’s first job was at American Optical in Southbridge Massachusetts, at the time the largest ophthalmic manufacturing company on the planet. The very first lasers were actually developed in the laboratories of AO. In the early 1960s Dr. Siegel and his partners were doing research on lasers at Bellevue. Now, as you can imagine, something as powerful as the energy of the laser light had also come to the attention of the U.S. Military. So comes the story of the Bellevue Death Ray!

Dr. Siegel and Dr. Ron Carr were doing laser work somewhere in the bowels of Bellevue. This would have been in the early 1960s, and the laser they were working on was an enormous mechanical monstrosity, a piece of equipment that took up more space than most upper East Side kitchens. Not only was it physically enormous, but the generation of a single pulse of laser took well over a minute, a minute filled with a crescendo of sound not unlike what one would experience when a jet engine is engaged . Imagine a room, half filled with this exotic piece of near–science fiction equipment, surrounded by white–coated scientists all wearing goggles that look as if they had been spirited away from a Mount Everest expedition. Add in a few very senior military officers in full dress regalia and the scene is set.

The officers visiting from the Pentagon really had no idea what to expect. They were intrigued by this new technology, interested to see if there might be some military application. Dr. Siegel noted that he and Dr. Carr were mostly bemused by the presence of the officers, although he did admit being a little bit impressed by the two-star general in their midst. The  experiment/demonstration was set up, on one end of the room the monstrous laser, on the other end of the room a rabbit in a box, his head poking through a hole, the laser aimed at his left eye. Goggles were donned and the switch was flipped.

The laser came to life, slowly building energy in the rudimentary laser tube, the whine and the clang and the clatter growing in intensity with each passing second. Dr. Siegel and Dr. Carr stood calmly to the side, ignoring the laser and concentrating on the rabbit. The officers, on the other hand, slowly crept back away from the laser, trying to melt through the wall, and failing that trying to become as small as possible. Two-dimensional, if possible. The wail of the laser grew… the sound filled the room… the wail, the clatter, a crescendo… BAM!

And then, silence. The doctors and the officers took off their goggles. They walked over to the  box and discovered that the rabbit was dead. Immediately one of the colonels started doing a jig. “We have a death ray! We have a death ray!” He began to run for the door, headed for the telephone (no cell phones or sat phones in those days). “Well, hold on a minute,” said Dr. Siegel. “Let’s just take a closer look.” It turns out that rabbits are not terribly bright creatures, and that when they are frightened they tend to forget how to move backwards. This poor bunny, the only creature in the room without Ed Hillary’s goggles, had been so frightened by the noise of the laser that he literally suffocated himself, pushing against the rim of the hole in the rabbit box in an effort to escape.

When Dr. Siegel looked inside the rabbit’s eye there was a single perfectly round burn, approximately 2 mm in size in the middle of the rabbits retina. There,  in the space of approximately 5 minutes, was born and died the Bellevue Death Ray.

The epilogue of this story is rather interesting, though. About 10 years later, after numerous refinements of both the production of laser energy and the focusing of that energy, one of the most important trials in the history of medicine took place using focused laser light to prevent vision loss from diabetic retinopathy. The Diabetic Retinopathy Study was the very first prospective, double–blind, randomized clinical study done on a cooperative basis across the entire country, the type of study that is now considered the ‘gold standard’ for medical research. The results of that study have saved countless individuals from a life of blindness due to diabetes.

This is where I trained, and men like Dr. Siegel who told us this tale from Bellevue Hospital as part of our optics classes, is one of the men who trained me.