For 82-year-old water color artist Sid Sklar, seeing life through the eyes of a child is more than a romantic notion. A ten year followup from Sid’s story, Thank You, Baby.
As a boy growing up in his native Philadelphia, Sid experienced vision problems due to keratoconus at age 15. He subsequently received a cornea from a stillborn infant, which restored his sight, making him one of the first persons in the world to undergo a successful corneal transplant. Sid’s story first appeared in the Winter 1998 edition of the NKCF newsletter. We are proud to bring you a recap – and an update – on this amazing man a decade later.
It was September 16, 1941 when Sid Sklar and his parents nervously entered the examining room of famed eye surgeon Dr. Ramon Castroviejo at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. The family had been referred to Dr. Castroviejo when doctors in Philadelphia could not figure out what had caused the 15-year-old Sid’s vision problems.
Dr. Castroviejo diagnosed Sid as having “keratoconus” – a condition not well known in those days – and told Sid and his parents about a new experimental procedure called a corneal transplantation. Agreeing to let Dr. Castroviejo perform the procedure (“I had already lost my sight – there was nothing to lose,” said Sid) the family returned home to wait until a cornea became available.
The family did not have to wait long. The same evening as the initial appointment, the family was called back to New York after Dr. Castroviejo located a cornea from a stillborn infant. Because there was no preservative at that time for the donated cornea, the doctor had to act fast. The surgery was performed the next day under local anesthesia and was witnessed by an international team of prominent ophthalmologists.
“I remember lying there, listening to the doctor describe exactly what he was doing to a large group of doctors who were present for the procedure,” said Sid. “Since I had no vision, there was a gray nothing. As Dr. Castroviejo removed the damaged cornea, everything became a velvet black. He prepared the graft . . . and applied it. I couldn’t believe it: suddenly, I could see my doctor’s face with his surgical mask, and another doctor wearing a turban!”
For two and a half weeks, Sid lay in a hospital, his eye immobilized with pressure bandages. Sandbags were placed around his head to keep it immobilized as well. “When the bandages were taken off, the experience was almost impossible to describe,” said Sid. “I could see the furniture in the room, the lights, the doctors and the nurses standing around the bed. Everything had a red tint to it, but I could see everything clearly!” Eventually, the red tint went away.
In 1942 and 1944, corneal transplants were attempted on Sid’s other eye, but even though Dr. Castroviejo followed the same procedure, his body rejected the new graft each time. “Today, anti-rejection drugs are available, but there was nothing of the kind then,” Sid explained. “When they said rejection, that was it!” In 1946, he returned to New York City for a third corneal transplant on his right eye and this time the operation was a success: the cornea held. It was also in 1946 that Lifemagazine published an article about Dr. Castroviejo and corneal transplantation, which featured photos of Sid and several other corneal transplant patients.
After the surgery, Sid began volunteering at rehabilitation centers, veterans’ hospitals and at a corneal transplant support group. Over the years, he married, had three children and ran a successful vending business that catered to colleges, turnpike interchanges, and state police barracks in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In 1988 he sold the business and took a job as a turnpike toll collector to earn extra money for retirement.
Then, one fateful afternoon in 1991, life again changed for Sid. As he walked across the narrow lanes between toll booths, a driver made eye contact with him, but inexplicably sped up and hit him. “I jumped back and spun up in the air,” he said. “He ran over me and got away.”
Sid had broken bones in his legs, needed two knee replacement surgeries, and suffered injuries to his spine and neck. To keep his mind off his sometimes excruciating pain he began experimenting with water colors and discovered he has a special affinity for painting nature and the great outdoors.
“After I got better, my wife and I traveled in our RV all over North America,” said Sid, whose wife Terry passed away about two years ago. “We went from Canada to Key Biscayne, Florida, to Nova Scotia then west across the Rockies . . . North America is the most beautiful place in the world!”
Sid captured that beauty on canvas. Although he has never received any formal art training, Sid’s landscapes, seascapes, and other natural scenes have appeared in both national and international art exhibits and he’s won numerous awards for his work. In recent years he has suffered a stroke and heart attack, and was dropped by an ambulance worker – but his transplanted corneas have remained clear, his vision perfect and he’s never stopped painting! Recently he has begun to concentrate on portraits, since he is now partially paralyzed and confined to an electric wheelchair, and cannot hold a paintbrush as well as he once did.
For a man who has undergone such physical challenges, Sid seems remarkably unfazed. He spends his days undergoing physical therapy and painting the portraits of residents and employees at the Southeastern Pennsylvania Veterans Center, where he now resides. “When I paint, I am in such a deep concentration that I lose myself and don’t feel pain,” he said.
To this day, Sid still thinks about how he regained his sight – and made his ability to paint possible. “I begin each morning by saying ‘thank you, baby,'” he said. “When I was first married, my wife asked me why I only called her ‘baby’ in the morning. I explained to her that I was thanking the baby whose cornea made it possible for me to see again.”
Sid Sklar is a self taught artist. He is visually impaired, besides having been in a automobile accident which has resulted in severe injuries and intractable pain. While he was recovering in a rehabilitation hospital his severe pain kept him up at night so he started to paint when he was not asleep. Sid is primarily a watercolorist and his favorite subject matter is landscapes. He has exhibited extensively and won many prizes. He has had one man shows at the IRA Towers and Center City MidAtlantic Bank and his art is in many private and corporate collections. Sid is a Nuvisions Board Member.
Beverly Antel is a staff writer and development associate for the Discovery Eye Foundation and the NKCF.