Keep an Open Mind – Part 1

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The Key to Breakthrough

This past March, I learned of the death of Dr. Arnall Patz at the age of 89.  Most people have never heard of Doctor Patz or his work.  I never knew him by name until three years ago.

In the late 1940s, Doctor Patz began to observe that babies born prematurely who were subjected to pure oxygen for two or more weeks exhibited a much higher incidence of blindness than babies who were not subjected to continuous pure oxygen for the same duration.  Upon definitive analysis and observation of 75 prematurely born children, Dr. Patz was able to establish a direct correlation between pure oxygen environments for some of these babies and blindness.

He applied to the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation for grants to study this phenomenon.  As he told me when I met him in 2007, his grant application was rejected by both organizations, saying that there could not possibly be any correlation between pure oxygen and blindness since, after all, we all breathe oxygen and that it was breathing oxygen that keeps us alive.  He was told that his observations could not possibly be scientific in nature.

By the mid-1950s, retrolental fibroplasia, (known today as retinopathy of prematurity) was recognized by many ophthalmologists as the leading cause of blindness in the United States.  In fact, it was so widespread among premature births that it lowered the average age of blindness in the United States in 1955 from 67 to 65 years of age.    Notwithstanding the original lack of support from the NIH and the NSF, Doctor Patz’ findings were validated and his position was vindicated.

I was one of those premature babies who became blind because of retrolental fibroplasia.  I was fortunate that my parents decided that they would not be using the “pity approach” to blindness to raise their child.

Today, retinopathy of prematurity still causes blindness, but only when a prematurely born child must receive continuous pure oxygen to survive.  It is now a “given” that if a newborn in an incubator can live without being subjected to ongoing pure oxygen for weeks, then irregular air supply should be utilized as much as possible in order to prevent the blindness we now know can be caused by pure oxygen.

You may be asking what relevance does this story have us personally and the for the world in which we live today.  The answer is quite simple if you take a look at the dynamics: On the one hand we had a lone doctor who observed something radically different than what traditional science believed to be fact.  On the other hand we had the predominant leaders of the scientific world who rejected scientific facts because they were unwilling or unable to keep enough of an open mind to objectively study Doctor Patz’s data.  As history revealed, Dr. Patz was correct and the so-called scientific community was wrong.  The delay on the part of science certainly caused more children to go blind than were necessary.

How often do we decide that something told to thus or even some observation we make ourselves cannot possibly be true because it goes against our established pattern of experience and belief?  How often do we fail to keep an open mind and thus miss a chance to learn something new?  A closed mind is a form of blindness.  If we close our minds to new ideas and concepts other than those we have come to accept we may never experience the growth and benefits that those new ideas and concepts potentially bring.

By “keeping an open mind” we can avoid unnecessary blindness figuratively, and as Dr. Patz’s life demonstrated, literally.

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  • David R. Stayer

    I was born in 1940 with RLFP and was in an incubator for six months or more. I weighed 1 and a haf pounds. I deeply apprciate what the Dr. did to prevent others from losing their sight. Fortunately my parents, especially my mother, let me do what my sighted siblings did. I am the oldest and the only one who finished college and went on for a Master’s Degree in Social Work before the advent of much of the assistive technology.

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