Merit Badges

Our last normal summer break, careened from problem to problem.

Boy Scouts spend most of the year working on service projects and leadership skills. Summertime brings scout camp, where scouts earn most of their merit badges. A scout needs to earn at least 21 merit badges to reach the rank of Eagle. Eleven of those come from a list of required badges. The remaining badges are elective badges that teach scouts about vocations and avocations they can enjoy throughout their lives. Most badges require learning skills or technical knowledge which can require hours if not many days of hands on learning. Since skills like welding, plumbing and nuclear science also require the use of tools and other materials which may not be found in the home, summer camp is an important part of the scouting experience.

By the summer of 2016, Avner had finally earned the rank of Star Scout. He only needed one more required badge to achieve the rank of Life before he started working on the requirements for Eagle Scout. Our troop typically goes to camp on the first week after school ends. In addition to scout camp at Wallwood, Troop 115 was scheduled to take two boats at Sea Base in St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands in mid July.

We planned for a memorable summer. It proved very memorable but for reasons which were very different than we expected.

Boy Scouts of America operate four high adventure bases, Philmont Boy Scout Reservation, Northern Tier, the Bectel Summit and Sea Base. At a high adventure base, Scouts and leaders spend a week surviving in the wilderness with only the supplies they carry with them. These are often expensive trips which mark the highlight of a scouting career for youth and leaders. Few scouts get to a high adventure base and fewer go more than once.

In addition to the scouts’ expenses in deposits and travel fees, leaders also make significant investments of time and money for additional required training for high adventure trips. In Tallahassee, wilderness first aid is the most difficult training program to schedule because of cost and the infrequent availability of the class. However, troops attending high adventure bases must also bring adult leaders certified in weather hazards, CPR, and regular first aid. Sea Base also requires safe Swim Defense and Safety Afloat and successful completion of a physical, and a swimming test.

Other leaders were scheduled to go to Wallwood while most of the adults going to Sea Base prepared to ship out, including last minute training. Wilderness first aid training started on Saturday morning before regular summer camp. I awoke early that Friday morning before sunrise. As I looked around the room, I noticed a greenish flash of light on the edge of my vision. It looked very much like a firefly. It was interesting because there were no fireflies in my bedroom and the issue was in my vision but I had no pain. As morning light invaded my room, the flashes faded and I almost forgot about it.

That night, we went out to dinner as a family for our son’s favorite, Sonny’s Barbeque. By the time we left, satisfied with our meal, night had fallen and that urban twilight accepted as darkness settled around us.

While driving home, I complained to Barbara that her phone screen was too bright and it was distracting me from seeing the road properly. After dimming the screen, it still bothered me and I asked her to turn off the phone. That’s when I realized that the early morning flashes hadn’t really disappeared.  They just weren’t bright enough for me to see against the background of daylight. Barbara expressed immediate concern. I dismissed her concerns. After all, I had no pain. I could see just fine. It was just some trick of my vision.

We needed a few things from the store and disagreed about who should run the errand. It was going to be a quick errand to Publix and I insisted on going, myself, while Barbara prepared Avner for camp.

When I parked the car in front of Publix, I decided to Google the flashes in my vision before stepping into the store. The information was instantly unsettling. The flashes in my vision foreshadowed an imminent retinal tear. As usual, my wife knew better and I was in denial. I shopped while the news sunk in.

I let Barbara know about my findings when I walked in through the kitchen door moments later. Of course, the smart thing would be a call to a doctor or an immediate trip to the ER. In my final display of male hubris that evening, I opened an app.

I had found an app called First Opinion in the App Store. The app connects end users, like you and me with off-shore doctors. It seems intended to answer routine medical questions, reassure nervous parents and generate revenues from subscriptions. I used it often as a research tool. It cost less than seeing a doctor and I could explore options of care that I would pursue later with my physician.

The advice that night carried a different urgency. Yes, the flashes in my vision amounted to the early signs of a retinal tear. Do not delay. Do not wait. Go to the ER, now! I called my physician’s on-call number.

The on-call nurse called back another 30 to 45 minutes later. She listened to my symptoms. No, I shouldn’t wait. Yes, I should leave immediately. Go to the ER.

From the time I first started looking up my symptoms, more than two hours had passed. I experienced no pain. My vision was the same crappy vision I had had all my life. About 11:00 p.m., I wandered into the emergency room. I filled out the paperwork. I was triaged and eventually led to a room.

The hospital nurses and doctors reassured me that for cases like mine, they normally call an on-call ophthalmologist who has the patient discharged with a follow up appointment after the weekend. I surfed whatever late night television was available to me. The room was kept relatively dark, compared to the brightly lit hallway and nurses station. Staff came and went from my exam room while I waited and night turned to early morning. About this time I started to worry about my wilderness first aid class starting at 8:00 a.m. that same morning.

I asked about that discharge and referral that I had been told about. Now, I was informed that the doctor found my case too interesting for a quick dismissal. So I waited. To my own consternation, I reminded myself through empirical evidence that nothing worth seeing airs in the late hours on the handful of channels available in the ER. Then it happened.

As I sat in the bed, alternating between video games and terrible tv, the vision in my right eye disintegrated. The moment of my retinal tear looked like a special effect in a movie. Between the tear in my eye and the blood filling the eye from the adjacent blood vessels to the tear, it looked like a spider web spreading across my field of vision. After the spider web, was a snow globe effect with all kinds of debris floating around. Finally a black object in the middle of my field of view, was waving back and forth like a flag, obscuring what was left of the vision in my right eye.

In retrospect, I took the entire experience very calmly. Think about it. I was already in a hospital bed. I had arrived before whatever happened and an ophthalmologist was already in route. Under the circumstances, there was no better place I could be.

Sea Base remained a problem. It was well after midnight and I was half blind in a hospital and wilderness first aid class started at 8:00 a.m. with or without me. More important, we didn’t have a certified adult if one of our troop leaders didn’t attend the certification class in my place. Very quickly, the urgency about wilderness first aid loomed at the top of my priority list. If the troop didn’t get someone in that class who would sail with the scouts, then half our scouts couldn’t go to Sea Base. I wouldn’t let that happen, if it was in my power.

Finally the doctor walked into the exam room. Even from my hospital bed, I could see she was a petite woman with little patience for the patient who had her wakened in the wee hours. I had lights shone in my eyes. The doctor peered through a scope into my eye and informed me that my eye had hemorrhaged (what calming and reassuring news). Several times she complained that the equipment in the ER wasn’t up to the quality of equipment in her office. “No strenuous activity until we can see you in the office on Monday.”

“I have travel plans,” I explained. Very quickly she snapped that I needed to be seen before any decisions could made about my fitness to travel. “You don’t understand,” I began.

“No, Mr Lyons you don’t understand…”

“Doctor, you don’t understand. I have wilderness first aid certification class in about six hours.” I continued. “If there’s a chance that I can’t go to St Thomas in in a few weeks, then I need to put someone else in that class now.”

“Mr. Lyons, you hemorrhaged into your eye. Unless you want to lose your vision, you shouldn’t do anything strenuous until my partner can determine whether or not your retina is intact, unless you want to be blind. If you can sit in that class, in a chair without straining yourself, then you can sit in the class but I can’t tell you that you can travel.”

By the time the doctor and I had staked out our concerns and defended our positions, it was close to 2:00 a.m. I started calling Crill, my Scoutmaster immediately. He didn’t answer his phone. Apparently, he’s a reasonable human being and doesn’t take calls at 2:00 a.m.

I was eventually released from the emergency room. I was given an appointment to see the ophthalmologist on Monday morning. I had two days to stew. The road home was clear of traffic being so late, or early on a Saturday morning. My wife was asleep and I had driven myself to the hospital, so I drove home. I’ve made better decisions, but no one suggested to me that I shouldn’t drive home half blind.

I kept calling Crill and Geoff, another Assistant Scoutmaster who would also be on the trip, throughout the night. It was a mostly fruitless effort until about 6:30 a.m. about the time I was ready to quit calling. I’d been awake most of the night. That’s when Crill called me back. The conversation was fairly short, but Crill took the situation very calmly.

Crill is well over six feet tall, thin and bald. He is often the calm at the center of the storm. My son and I joined our scout troop largely because of Crill’s calming demeanor. He and his brother Dana earned the rank of Eagle Scout in our troop and Crill saw three of his own sons grow into Eagle Scouts in the same troop.

Anyway Crill and I started to strategize how we might get someone into my spot for the class, now less than two hours away. Then Geoff called.

Geoff had other plans that morning. Realizing the seriousness of the situation, he was able to cancel his plans and go to the class in my place. The problem was, no one had told the local Boy Scout council that we were making the last minute substitution and the class was at capacity. There was some bargaining at the door to let Geoff in. Essentially, he was told the class was sold out and if the missing student (me) showed up, he’d be out the door. Eventually the word got through that Geoff was in the class instead of me and my course fees would be applied to Geoff’s certification.

Finally, regardless of what happened to me, the troop could go to St Thomas in about two and a half weeks. We just needed to get through summer camp, get packed and get on an airplane. I wouldn’t meet my eye surgeon until Monday morning.


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