The World War II Hero Who Saved My Sight

Charles

Just before Christmas 2011, I lost sight of my right eye. The retina had become detached, but after two operations, the sight could not be saved, in fact, my eye shrunk dramatically, and I now have a glass shell with an eye painted on it in front of the remainder of my eye.

In November 2014, the retina in my left eye also became detached, so I faced going blind. I had to undergo an emergency operation in a Hospital in Cork which, is 100 km away from my home in Limerick.

In Cork, the consultant surgeon advised me he would be putting a scleral buckle in place to re-attach my retina and to save my eye and sight. The operation was a success this time and my eye was saved.

buckle

The man who pioneered this technology was Dr Charles L. Schepens. He was born in Mouscron, Belgium, in 1912. He initially studied mathematics before graduating from medical school in 1935 at the State University of Ghent in Belgium. In 1937, he served as assistant to Dr L. Hambresin in Brussels.

Appointed in 1940, Dr Schepens was a Captain in the Medical Corps of the Belgian Air Force, where he served until the country of the Nazi invasion in May 1940. He escaped to France and worked with the French and Belgian resistance. In 1942, under the nom de guerre Jacques Pérot, he spearheaded secret information and an evacuation pipeline in the Pyrenees under the cover of a country lumber mill near the village of Mendive. He was arrested several times by the Gestapo.

He was first arrested by the Gestapo in October 1940 while he still was in Belgium on false accusations of using a bus to transport Allied pilots out of Belgium. Although he was released ten days later, this experience turned the previously apolitical doctor into an activist, and allowed his office to be used as a post office for underground agents, arranging for the transfer of maps and such information as troop movement. In 1942, a spy in Gestapo headquarters alerted him that he was about to be arrested, and he escaped to Paris.

In an effort to find an escape route to Spain, he and a group of fellow resistance members came across an abandoned sawmill near the town of Mandive in the Pyrenees on the Spanish border. One of the key features was a 12-mile-long cable-car system extending up the mountain and ending near the border. In the mill an effort to find an escape route to Spain, he and a group of fellow resistance members came across an abandoned sawmill near the town of Mandive in the Pyrenees, on the Spanish border. One of the key features was a 12-mile-long cable car system extending up the mountain and ending near the border.

Dr Schepens bought the mill July 1942, with backing from a wealthy French patriot and had it in full-operation by the end of the year. The site became a functioning lumber enterprise, taking orders, delivering wood and meeting a payroll. Not to cause any suspicion Dr Schepens (aka Jacques Perot) developed relationships with the occupying Germans, leading his Basque neighbours to think that he was a Nazi collaborator.

Men, mainly men he helped to escape, who did manual labour around the mill, could secretly ride the cable-car system to the top of the mountain and slip into Spain, often with the assistance of a shepherd named Jean Sarochar.

MILL

More than 100 Allied pilots, prisoners of war, Belgian government officials and others made their way out of France over the cable railway. The system also was used to move documents, currency, propaganda and other materials into and out of France.

Everything went according to plan until 1943: That year, a captured resistance agent exposed him. The Gestapo came for him a second time. He escaped before they could arrest him. He had told the Gestapo “it is now 10 o’clock. I have 150 workers idle because they have not been given their orders this morning. Give me 10 minutes with them. I’ll give the orders and come back.”. He then just walked out.

He spent 16 days in the forest before reaching Spain and, eventually, England, where he resumed his medical career.

In the meantime, the Nazis held Dr. Schepens‘s wife and children as bait to lure him out of hiding. However, eventually, his wife and children  made their daring escape, hiking through the mountains to reach Spain, and were reunited with Dr Schepens nine months later in England.

After the war, Schepens resumed his medical career at Moorfields. In 1947, he immigrated to the United States and became a fellow at Harvard Medical School.

harvard

He became famous in the ophthalmic community for his work in creating the first binocular, stereoscopic indirect ophthalmoscope (1946) and in treating retinal detachment with an encircling scleral buckle (1953).

If the Gestapo had arrested him the second time, he more than likely would have been executed. Amazing to think of what could have happened to my eye in that case.

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Sources

https://eye.hms.harvard.edu/news/charles-schepens-featured-in-eyeworld

https://eye.hms.harvard.edu/charlesschepens

Washington Post

https://www.eyeworld.org/article-ophthalmologist-who-created-vitreoretinal-subspecialty-lived-double-life-as-wwii-resistance-fighter-and

https://www.aao.org/biographies-detail/charles-schepens-md

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