A Wartime Hero Fashions New Weapons in the Battle Against Blindness
There are a half million blind Americans today, and every 15 minutes another citizen is becoming blind,” warns Dr. Charles L. Schepens of Boston. “Yet there’s so much terror involved with blindness that people don’t want to spend one minute thinking about it.”
In speech, as in dress (conservative three-piece suits) and in his approach to treating eye disease, Schepens is a man of great precision. “The total prevention of blindness is as achievable as making the world a totally happy place,” he says. “But a substantial partial goal is reachable.” (He points for example to the 17 million blind people in underdeveloped countries who could see if their bilateral cataracts were operated on.)
An internationally renowned ophthalmologist, the Belgian-born Schepens, 65, has pioneered new techniques and new equipment for delicate eye surgery. As a teacher he has trained more than half of the world’s qualified retinal surgeons. Schepens is tireless, often working 18 hours a day, seven days a week. “He is fiercely partisan on his patients’ behalf,” says a peer. “He takes illness as a challenge to him. It’s a problem he must solve.” Schepens himself explains it more simply. “Helping others makes me feel good. I like to feel good, so I do it.”
It is a philosophy which his devout Catholic parents imparted to their whole family. His three brothers are also doctors, his two sisters nurses. While still a student Schepens became friends with a 17-year-old Russian émigré named Oleg Pomerantzeff, a would-be engineer. They talked of treating eye diseases by “marrying medicine to engineering.”
World War II intervened. The Nazi blitzkrieg forced Schepens, then a Belgian medical corps lieutenant, to flee to southern France, where he joined the Resistance under the name “Monsieur Perot-Spengler.” Working in a sawmill as cover, he aided shot-down Allied flyers, smuggled documents and escaped just ahead of the Gestapo by scrambling over the Pyrenees into Spain. For his exploits Schepens received five medals, including both the Belgian and French Croix de Guerre.
After the war Schepens came to the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. In 1950, mostly on borrowed money, he set up the Retina Foundation in the basement of a Boston tenement. Now it is the country’s largest independent eye-research institution, employing 120 scientists, doctors and technicians.
Schepens’ latest innovation in eye treatment, fittingly enough, came in collaboration with his childhood friend Oleg Pomerantzeff. A concentration camp survivor, Pomerantzeff and Schepens developed an instrument called the Equator-Plus Ophthalmoscope. It permits a more accurate view inside a patient’s eye for diagnosing diseases of the retina (the back side of the eye).
Now a U.S. citizen, Schepens lives in an antique-filled home on Boston’s Beacon Hill with his wife of 40 years, Marie. The father of three grown daughters and a son, he enjoys taking his five grandchildren camping in the New Hampshire mountains. Rising each daybreak, wherever he is, to jog a mile and a half, Schepens relaxes by gardening (“I love anything that grows”). Still, though his life is full of rewards, it is in the operating room that Schepens finds particular satisfaction. “I’m in another world,” he says. “I know the stakes are high, and it can end in miserable failure. But when a patient has been told his blindness is incurable and you succeed—well, you walk on clouds.”