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Ruby Gabriel ends 29 years of eye impairment

Looking front and center ... Following an accident, Ruby Gabriel spent 29 years with tremendous difficulty aiming both eyes in the same direction. Medical advancement in optical muscle surgery now allows her to aim her right eye forward in line with the other eye. Shown is Gabriel during her post-surgery check-up with Dr. Erick Bothun who performs eight to nine similar operations per week.

A fall from a horse at the original 11-Mile Corner north of Philip left 12-year-old Ruby Gabriel with traumatic cranial V1 palsy. For the past 29 years she has been totally reliant on the use of prisms and abnormal head positions to see without double vision.

Today, through the advancement of eye surgery, Gabriel has correctable 20/20 vision, and can look forward with both eyes.

In 1976, during the Labor Day Fun Day, Gabriel was riding a horse. She was wearing her cowboy hat and her glasses, which she had needed for about two years. She, like everyone else there, was having fun.

She fell. It will never be known if one of the horse’s hooves struck her or not. It has been guessed that her hat may have given some small amount of cushion.

She was rushed to the hospital. For 16 days she lay unconscious in the intensive care unit in Rapid City. Gabriel had sustained a concussion, bleeding in the brain, damage to her right eye, and her left side was totally paralyzed.

On the 16th day, her brother, Larry, had been talking to her and holding her hand. He felt her gently squeeze his fingers. She was coming out of her coma.

Surgery had been done, which required several days of recovery. Gabriel cannot remember the time spent in the hospital, only the time in therapy. Her paralysis slowly diminished and was eventually gone through months of speech, physical and occupational therapy.

At first, one of her eyes was covered for three days, then the other would be covered for three days. This alternating treatment was to prevent the loss of vision in both eyes. Gabriel could see with both, but the right could not be directed to be in line with the other.

Gabriel returned home as an out-patient during Thanksgiving. Though with care and for only short periods, she was soon back riding horses again. Her family was warned to not pamper her, such as cutting her meat during meals, so she would be forced to work on her coordination after the paralysis. She joined her eighth grade classmates in school during the second week of December.

Time went by. Gabriel endured two more surgeries during her high school years. Again, each surgery required several days of preparation and recovery.

She adjusted. She did ranch work, even hunted, and became a librarian at the Buchanan Elementary School in Pierre. Her right eye usually stayed anchored toward the inside. Even with strong prisms in her glasses to help focus both eyes in the same direction, her neck was often sore from holding her head at awkward angles to try to focus both eyes on the same thing. She appeared to always be looking over the shoulder of whomever she was talking to.

In 2001, she was told by Rapid City doctors that further surgery would give her a 50/50 chance to improve her eye problem “a little,” but the opposing 50 percent chance was that she could lose her vision.

In the fall of 2004 while deer hunting, Gabriel was encouraged by a high school friend, Lee Renner, to again see a specialist. She promised to at least get a referral, which she did in February, 2005.

She was put in contact with a Dr. Erick D. Bothun of the Ophthalmology Department of the Medical School in Minneapolis, MN. He received her medical history and phoned her. Surgery was possible and an appointment was set for April 20. Many tests were done concerning limits to her eye movement. The doctor eventually determined, “I can help you to have straighter vision, not through a change in prisms, but through surgery.” He seemed amazed when she asked about the possibility of losing her vision, and said the odds were one in about two million that that would happen.

The surgery was set for May 2nd. Gabriel’s sister, Beverly Hamann, went with her to help drive and to give moral support. Gabriel had already asked the doctor’s age, “I didn’t want to find he graduated from medical school just the week before.” The doctor specializes in eye muscles and does similar surgeries eight to nine times per week. He had another surgery scheduled in the morning before Gabriel’s surgery.

Dr. Bothun walked beside Gabriel to the operating room and again explained the procedure. About half of the muscles above and below her right eye would be cut out and grafted onto the muscle on the right side. In the operating room, Gabriel asked the operating team to let her pray with them before the anesthesia “started making me feel really good.”

The surgery began at 11:30 a.m. and Gabriel was dismissed at 4:30 that afternoon. There were no bandages. When she woke up and opened her eyes, she could look forward with both eyes. The only post-surgery necessity was for Gabriel to use an ointment in her right eye for three days.

Gabriel returned to Minneapolis on June 29 for a check-up. Dr. Bothun told her that she went from a zero percent ability to see single in a straight gaze to 100 percent. Gabriel thanked the doctor for letting her pray in the operating room before the surgery began. "You are welcome,” he said. “I wish more people would do that. God gets all the credit for this one; I didn’t know if I could get you to 100 percent."

The problem that Gabriel has lived with for 29 years is almost gone. Gabriel has another check-up in November, though already has a far simpler prescription for her glasses. She is better able to read to her elementary students. They have exclaimed, “You are beautiful; and your eyes are straight.”