Over the 2019 Fourth of July holiday, I treated almost every serious eye injury in eastern Oklahoma and parts of western Arkansas. Here’s what I saw in one weekend:
• 10 patients with serious eye injuries from fireworks.
• 11 injured eyes. (One patient had injuries to both eyes.)
• Five patients with a permanent decrease in vision.
• One patient who lost an eye.
• No females.
• No alcohol-related injuries.
• Two patients over the age of 18.
These weren’t drunks. One man had weapons experience in the military. Another man was a watchful dad who wouldn’t let his children near the fireworks. Both of them told me, “I knew it hadn’t gone off, so I went back to check.”
Aside from those two men, my waiting room was filled … with boy after boy … after boy … after boy … after boy. Mostly 8-14 years old. One 5-year-old. One 17-year-old. Several crying in their mom’s arms.
(The moms were amazing, by the way. I thought a couple of the moms were nurses. They weren’t, but they maintained a nurse’s poise and equanimity.)
In the hospital elevator on the way to surgery, I ran into the hand surgeon. He was as busy as I was, with his own ghoulish stories to tell.
Think about how much denial it’s taken for us to get here.
So your 12-year-old wants to operate a lawnmower? We’ll stand by his side, and teach him every step. Your 16-year-old wants to drive a car? We’ll spend hours with him, and even pay for lessons.
Your 9-year-old wants to detonate small explosives? “Be careful! Don’t blow your eye out!”
Then we sit on a lawn chair and hope for the best.
But it’s not just our own kids. It’s the kids across the street. One of the more serious injuries I treated was a boy who didn’t even have fireworks. He was watching neighbors across the cul de sac from a “safe distance.” The neighbors fired an artillery-style shell, their tube fell over, the shell crossed the cul de sac and struck him in the eye.
We can do better. Here’s how:
1. All minors should have a legal guardian with them to purchase fireworks. (Right now, it’s easier for a child to buy explosives than to see an R-rated movie.)
2. All firework stands should sell eye protection. (Why do they not do this?? A perceived lack of demand? Bicycle shops helped create the demand for the helmets they sell.)
3. A public education plan should be developed to reawaken awareness and create an honorable code of conduct.
Gun owners could be helpful here. Gun owners are invariably well-educated and well-versed on gun safety. (And they’re quite intolerant of incompetent fools.) It’s a powerful positive pressure that simply does not exist in the world of consumer fireworks. Primarily because fireworks are an issue only a few days a year.
In the meantime, I’m glad that we as a society have collectively agreed — and have put it in writing — that hand grenades should be outlawed; that children should not be sold alcohol; that cigarettes should be stamped with a warning label; and that drivers should wear seat belts. Let’s add another one to the list: No society should allow children to detonate explosives.
“But you’re taking away a great tradition!” OK, let me instead propose a new tradition:
Every Fourth of July, let’s allow all the 9- to 12-year-old boys to take our family cars and drive them around town … just for the day. Imagine young boys filling up Tulsa streets with cars; your 10-year-old racing down the Creek Turnpike.
It’d be fun! It would mean so much to them! And there probably wouldn’t be that many accidents. I’d guess less than 100.
If you think that’s a stupid idea for a tradition, then you understand how I feel about children detonating explosives.
And if you think I’m overstepping, I know eight moms I wish you could meet.
Brute Wolf, M.D., is a Tulsa ophthalmologist and a former member of the Tulsa World community advisory board.