Bruce Bailey's world grew fuzzier by the day, but he didn't let on. Keep pushing, he figured, things are bound to get better.
Then he wrecked his car. He paid other men to drive him to work. With one child at home and another on the way, he had to keep drawing a paycheck — even if he couldn't see it.
He squinted and blinked, but nothing cleared the fog. He could barely make out the concrete blocks he and a crew had to stack for a construction project at MacDill Air Force Base, but he balked at driving a forklift. When the boss asked why, Bailey broke down.
"I can't see," he cried.
Noel Jones, who owns Suncoast Builders Development in New Port Richey with his son Brent, couldn't believe it. Bailey, 28, had been such a good worker. "He was consistent and honest," Jones said. "He never complained.''
Bailey didn't know what had been stealing his vision, and he couldn't afford to find out. The cruelest economy in decades had sent Suncoast Builders into a dive, and there was no way the concrete and masonry company could provide health insurance. "We went from 140 employees when times were good to 25," said Jones, 62. "We're just hanging on."
Bailey made $14 an hour, too much to qualify for Medicaid but barely enough to buy groceries and pay for the rides to work. He sought advice from various social service agencies, but basically concluded he would have to save up for a medical diagnosis. His family couldn't help. Both his parents, Bruce Sr. and Tina, had been laid off from their jobs. They hadn't been able to make a mortgage payment in more than a year and feared foreclosure at any time on their home in Tampa.
"We lived there 13 years," said Tina, 48. "And now we have to get out."
Bailey and his girlfriend, seven months pregnant, stayed at the house with their 2-year-old daughter, Bailey's sister and her 4-year-old twins. Things got so crowded that Bruce Sr. and Tina moved into a 32-foot travel trailer in O'Brien, a small community on the Suwannee River where they used to go for weekend getaways when times were better.
"Now we have to live in that trailer," said Bruce Sr., 50, who had worked the last seven years remodeling recreational vehicles for Lazydays RV in Seffner, which fell into bankruptcy.
Noel Jones studied the situation. He knew his employee wasn't going to get the help he needed. And so even though he worried about the very existence of his company, he told Bailey he would pay for his treatment.
"I thought he was going to collapse," Jones said.
Jones arranged for Bailey to visit St. Luke's Cataract & Laser Institute in Tarpon Springs. An exam revealed cataracts in both eyes.
Last Tuesday afternoon, Bailey sat among dozens of other patients, most of them old enough to be his grandparents. The surgeon who would remove the cataracts, Dr. Pit Gills, said that while it is uncommon for such a young person to have cataracts, "we get a fair amount here." Long-term unprotected exposure to sunlight and some medications can lead to the problem, but "mostly it occurs and we don't know why," the doctor said. He welcomed Bailey into an operating room at 2:55 p.m. and used ultrasound to break up the cataract in his right eye. He removed the cloudy natural lens and replaced it with an artificial lens that had just a week earlier received FDA approval.
Bailey had been nervous about the surgery. But after a little more than five minutes, he was being escorted into a recovery room. His folks came in to greet him.
"I can see!" he cried.
As tears rolled down his face, nurses in the room also cried.
"This is why we do what we do," said RN Kathy LeSage, director of surgical operations.
For the first time in months, Bailey was able to identify colors. "I thought your hair was gray," he said to a reporter. "Now I can see it's brown."
Dr. Gills will replace the other foggy lens next week.
A grateful mother called Noel Jones after the surgery. "Without him, I don't know what we would have done," she said. "He is such a good, good man; a blessing to us."
Jones figures he'll pay $3,750 so Bailey can see, not counting any medicine he may need. "Somebody had to step up," he said. "I'm just glad he'll be okay."
Reach Bill Stevens, the Times' North Suncoast Editor, at (727) 869-6250.