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CHICAGO — Persistence and love helped give a young man a new outlook on life.

Imagine having a son in such great need and no doctor willing to do what was necessary to help him see.

Harry Panas had a detached retina. His mother, Margaret Panas, was so attached to him, even when he couldn’t express what he needed, she knew.

She drove to Chicago and simply said, “Help my son.” That’s where this amazing story begins — and it ends with an important message for anyone who loves someone with special needs.

“At about a year and a half, his personality changed, he didn’t want to be around anybody,” Margaret Panas said.

Harry Panas, who is now 18, was diagnosed with autism. His mother said he is non-verbal.

The family got him therapy and he went to school. But in time, his frustration built.

“He started to show aggression toward his aides at school, toward us at home,” his mother said. “He would hit himself. I think he turned to self-injury because he didn’t want to hurt anyone but he just couldn’t control himself.”
Soon they noticed the self-injurious behavior had damaged Harry Panas’ left eye.

“They determined that at some point he had detached the retina in that eye. It was not noticed. So it was not fixed and atrophied to the point where he is blind in his left eye,” his mother said.

Then more bad news: Harry Panas was having difficulty seeing out of his right eye.

“He was totally withdrawn, he needed to be guided everywhere, he couldn’t feed himself. He was blind basically,” Margaret Panas said. “Being non-verbal, how do you communicate? Your sight is everything.”

A local Wisconsin doctor said his condition could only be fixed with surgery, but then the doctor refused to do the operation. 

“Apparently when you are special needs it is a major thing,” Margaret Panas said. “We were just shocked and devastated and angry and didn’t even know what to do.”

Driven to help her son, Margaret Panas got in the car and went to Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

“We got there when the ophthalmology clinic opened,” she said. “We had no appointment. We just said, is there somebody that we can talk to about our son’s situation?”

They not only talked, but ophthalmologist Dr. Safa Rahamani made an appointment for a surgical fix. 

“Luckily we were able to catch his retinal detachment at a stage where it was very severe but at least possible to at least try to fix it surgically,” Rahmani said.

It took two operations and an extensive plan for keeping Harry Panas still after surgery and stopping him from hurting himself again.

“We had to keep him motionless in order to allow, you know, the healing process,” Rahmani said. “The retina is really the film and the camera if you think of your eye as a camera. So it has to be perfectly laid out flat the back of the eye wall. So when we fix the retina and put it back into place we need something to hold it in place until the retina has time to heal and attach back to the eye wall.”

“As soon as the bandages came off we could tell right away that he could see. He was able to feed himself. It was, yeah, so much joy,” Margaret Panas said.

“One of those successes keeps you going because you are making a difference in a kid’s life,” Rahmani said.”

A doctor’s dedication, a mother’s vision for her son’s future changed everything. Now together they are hoping Harry’s story inspires others. 

“That was June a year ago and he is back at school he is independent, he is living the life that he should be living,” Margaret Panas said. “My goal is to try to get healthcare professionals to be more educated and to understand special needs people and maybe try to come up with solutions.”

“Parents out there who have kids that have cognitive impairment who have self-injurious behavior, get your kids in, their sight is critical. We can do things,” SO Rahmani said.

Margaret Panas went back to the original doctor begging them not to abandon someone else in need. She said she didn’t get very far, but she will continue to speak out for those like her son who can’t.