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The Blister That Can Blind
John Papanek
May 24, 1982
The first thing Dr. Ronald G. Michels tells any patient with a detached retina is that he or she has suffered "one of the most serious things that can happen to the eye," and that if surgery isn't performed promptly, total blindness can result. Michels, 38, an associate professor of ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins University's Wilmer Eye Institute who performed the retinal reattachment operation on Sugar Ray Leonard, is one of the nation's most renowned eye surgeons and an expert on diseases of the retina. Approximately 20,000 Americans annually develop detached retinas, a condition usually associated with aging. Most of Michels' patients are well into middle age. Those as young as the 26-year-old Leonard have usually been victims of some sort of trauma.
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May 24, 1982

The Blister That Can Blind

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The one who didn't, Harold Weston Jr., 30, today is the matchmaker for Madison Square Garden. Three years ago he was fighting Thomas Hearns—and perhaps beating him—when Hearns thumbed Weston's right eye. His retina was literally torn to ribbons, and 80% to 85% detached. Even after an eight-hour operation that was considered more a miracle than a success, Weston was game to fight again. "I needed the cash," he says. "I was willing to lose the eye if the right price was thrown at me. But it wasn't, so I just said, 'Forget about it. I'll quit.' "

Earnie Shavers suffered a severe retinal tear when he was thumbed by Larry Holmes on Sept. 28, 1979, at the age of 34. He saw "specks" immediately, and within four days was at Johns Hopkins, where Michels sealed the tear with a laser. Shavers was back in the ring on March 8, 1980 and has had eight fights since then, including a second-round knockout of Joe Bugner on May 8.

"My first two, three fights I was a little leery," Shavers says. "But if I thought there was any danger of losing my sight, I wouldn't fight."

Hilmer Kenty, a 26-year-old former WBA lightweight champion, is scheduled to make his comeback June 11, less than 11 months after undergoing surgical repair of a retinal tear in his left eye, which he suffered while sparring. "You know the thought [of re-injury] is going to come, but it's going to go right back out," Kenty says. "It's going to have to or I'll get beat to death. I'm sure of that."

Weston feels there are two factors that cause boxers to be reluctant to acknowledge eye injuries. First, the vast majority of fighters are young, uneducated and unskilled, trying desperately to cash in on their only chance for financial success. "The only thing they know," Weston says, "is the baby needs milk, the rent's due, the car note is due, the insurance is due, and the only thing they know how to do is fight. They may know something is wrong with their eye but they won't tell anybody because they want to keep on going. And, O.K., say you got a kid with no money and no manager and he thinks he has a detached retina. Who pays for the operation?"

An excellent question, which leads to the second factor: the indifference of some managers, promoters and boxing commissions. No state requires a fighter to undergo an ophthalmological exam before a bout. "All they want is that body," Weston says. "The manager may not want to hear about a fighter with a detached retina, because he feels it's going to mess up his payday." The same presumably goes for many of the other boxing people.

Says Weston, "I feel that if they took all the fighters in the world today, they would find 30 percent have detached or torn retinas. Thirty percent! Anybody that gets their head jolted every day, day in and day out, something's got to be wrong with their eyes."

Michels will only go so far as to call Weston's feeling "an interesting observation." Although no studies have been done on the subject, Michels wouldn't say that Weston's estimate is off base.

As for the decision that Leonard will have to make, Michels will encourage him not to think about it for the next six months. "At that point," the ophthalmologist says, "I will have to decide whether the eye itself is as secure and strong as a normal eye. And Leonard will have to evaluate my opinion about his chances of [recurring] problems in the context of his career." As for what a recurrence might mean to Leonard, Michels says, "If you have performed a reattachment that hasn't held up, then in all likelihood the condition would be much more serious than it was the first time."

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