Sanford D. Greenberg is the author of the new memoir Hello Darkness, My Old Friend: How Daring Dreams and Unyielding Friendship Turned One Man's Blindness into an Extraordinary Vision for Life. He is the chairman of the board of governors of the Wilmer Eye Institute at The Johns Hopkins University, and he is based in Washington, D.C.
Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and how long did you work on it?
A: I started writing Hello Darkness decades ago, in large part to better understand the arc of my life.
When I was 19 years old and a junior at Columbia, I suffered a horrible personal tragedy. Misdiagnosed glaucoma destroyed my sight in only six months. Finally, a surgeon operated not to rescue my vision — that was gone — but to save my eyes.
The life I had hoped to lead — law school, maybe politics — should have been over at that point. I had no resources to fall back on. My father was a junk dealer. But that didn’t happen. Almost six decades later, I consider myself the luckiest man in the world. In the memoir, I explore why.
Q: The book’s title comes from a Simon and Garfunkel song, and Art Garfunkel plays a major role in the book and wrote its introduction. How did you choose the title, and what does it mean for you?
A: Art Garfunkel was one of my roommates at Columbia. He talked me into returning to college after I was blinded, and once I did, he walked me to class and arranged readers for me, or read to me himself when a reader failed to show.
“Darkness,” he would say, “is going to read to you from the Iliad.” That’s part of where the title comes from. Arthur remains my best friend today.
But the title is also meant to suggest that, while no one would wish for blindness, my dark world has also been in its own way a wonderful gift — a way of seeing what I never would have experienced otherwise.
Q: You write about the prize you established to end blindness by 2020. What are some of the advances underway now?
A: It’s hard to know where to begin — so much is happening on so many fronts.
Surgical treatments are being constantly refined for conditions like glaucoma and to allow for successful corneal transplants. New forms of direct eye injections have made giant strides against age-related macular degeneration and diseases of the retina. Gene replacement for inherited eye diseases is in the pipeline.
Potentially blinding conditions are also being better managed, and the fruits of all this incredible progress will soon be impacting the millions of blind impoverished people in developing countries.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: The inestimable value of love, of family and friendships, of mentors, and of role models. The importance of dreaming big and of throwing deep. The fact that tragic events don’t have to have tragic outcomes.
If a junk dealer’s kid from Buffalo, New York, can do it, anyone can. There’s a lot of room in the tent labeled “Luckiest Person in the World,” and the flap is always open.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Ending blindness. My goal is not to ameliorate the condition. I made a sacred vow newly sightless in my hospital bed 60 years ago that I would do everything in my power to end blindness for everyone, forever more. I meant it literally then, and I still do today, and I will tomorrow and the next day and the next.
Blindness is on notice; its days are numbered. Soon will come a time when all God’s children can not only feel the sun shine on their faces but see its rising and setting.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb