Florida-based correspondent Kerry Sanders has ducked bullets and crawled through minefields covering the news for NBC. But he faced an even more dangerous situation outside a Florida courthouse last month: a malfunctioning TV light.
Sanders was temporarily blinded while covering the Michael Dunn trial in Jacksonville.
“I was in front of a TV camera from 7:30am until 5:30pm reporting for the TODAY Show, MSNBC and Nightly News,” writes Sanders. “The HMI light malfunctioned and the UV light was slowly burning my corneas, as well as frying the skin on my face. Not only could I not see, but my eyes burned in pain as if two hot coals smoldered in my sockets. The darkness lasted a frightening 36-hours. I still see foggy halos and out-of-focus views. The doctors say my eyesight will eventually return to normal.”
Sanders continues: “How did this happen? And how can I warn other TV reporters so it doesn’t happen to you?” Read the whole ordeal, after the jump…
To my friends and colleagues who may have wondered why I seemed to have slipped off the radar:
I was temporarily blind. Not only could I not see, but my eyes burned in pain as if two hot coals smoldered in my sockets. The darkness lasted a frightening 36-hours. I still see foggy halos and out-of-focus views. The doctors say my eyesight will eventually return to normal.
How did this happen? And how can I warn other TV reporters so it doesn’t happen to you?
I was in front of a TV camera from 7:30am until 5:30pm reporting for the TODAY Show, MSNBC and Nightly News at the Dunn trail in Jacksonville Florida. What I didn’t know, and no one else did either, was the HMI light malfunctioned and the UV light was slowly burning my corneas, as well as frying the skin on my face.
It wasn’t until around 8pm that night, as the pain began to increase, that I suspected this was serious. But hey, I’m the guy who toughed out a deadly scorpion bite on assignment in Afghanistan. I’ve marched into Iraq embedded with the toughest of the toughs, the US Marines.
I can push through this, right? By 2 am, I was in agony. My eyes had swollen shut and I could no longer tough out the escalating pain. I called for a cab. It was 25-minutes away, maybe longer.
Desperate, and perhaps with a mind muddled by pain, I grabbed the keys to the rental car. With my finger and thumb I pried open one of my now puffed-shut eyes, I aimed the car to the nearest hospital. Why I didn’t call 911 for ambulance is something I still can’t explain.
The drive was the longest 9-miles of my life. Thank goodness the roads were empty as I was in no condition to get behind the wheel. Just because I forced my eyelids open doesn’t mean I could see clearly. Things were getting hazier by the minute.
At the ER, 2 doctors concluded my corneas were fried. The anesthetic eye-drops to ease the pain lasted only about 15 minutes and then the agony returned. The biggest problem: those powerful drops could cause permanent injury so I would get only four per eye and no more.
By 4:30am, with the last drops in my eyes, and a potent pain pill in my throat, I was headed back to my lonely hotel room. I stumbled in the darkness. It was if a curtain had fallen over the world. Despite what I was told, I feared that curtain wouldn’t re-open.
Thankfully, I soon passed out. I was totally blind when I eventually woke up.
Scared and alone, I thought if my eyes would just tear up, all would be better. I tired to make
myself cry but not a single droplet formed. A day later, the intense pain had lifted, A glimmer of light was visible. Any light hurt, but finally I could see the raw outlines of shapes.
The producer I was working with brought me food and dark sunglasses. I realized how bad things were when I finally made it to the ophthalmologist and someone in the waiting room came up to me and said “Kerry, what are you doing here?”
I couldn’t see her, and didn’t recognize her unique southern drawl. Clearly I was confused as I
didn’t recognize that voice as my friend and neighbor of a decade plus.
When I eventually saw the third doctor, I was told to just give it time. All will eventually improve. Easily said. Not so easy to wait it out.
What did I learn in my moments of darkness?
First, it really is true that when you lose one sense, others are heightened. Food never tasted so good as when I couldn’t see it. The blackened trout, corn and green beans from Cracker Barrel was heavenly.
Also, during my blindness, one might think I dreamed of beautiful sunsets, palm trees swaying in the south Florida breezes, and perhaps a roseate spoonbill swinging its beak in the water in search of food. But in this dark room I had entered, what I saw in my mind’s eye were faces.
My wife. The smiles of those I love. My family. The twinkle in the eyes of friends. Faces of those who are close to me, and those who I have not seen for too long. Those faces of friends who have moved my heart and made me laugh.
So the next time, when I see you, if it looks like I’m staring, seemingly studying your face, it’s because I want to make sure I see every wonderful laugh line and eye color that makes you who you are.
The timing of all of this could never be good. It was especially awful as my brother and sister and I had spent almost two years coordinating schedules to travel together to release my mother’s ashes in the Andes of Peru where she grew up.
We stuck to our plan and made our way south. My sister was sort of my seeing eye-dog, and my brother played the pack mule, carrying my luggage.
More than 7,000 feet up, along the Inca Trail, we found the perfect spot to release her ashes. While there may be a detail or two I couldn’t make out, I could see the stunning beauty my mother always talked about when she would remember her childhood.
As I stood on an outcropping, with my eyes now wide open, my memory flashed her smiling face like a movie – from when I was young through the ages.
Mom was home with “the Pacha-mama” (mother earth) she had always embraced.
As for me, I’m smiling and celebrating everyone and everything I see. My eye-sight is now about 80-percent. Soon, the doctors say it’ll be 100-percent.
The first thing I’ll look at when I return to work? Probably those damned HMI lights, in the off position of course. Right now I’m not sure what to look for, but you can be sure I’m going to find out. And if being around camera lights is anywhere in your job description, you should too.