When Isaac Lidsky lost his sight, he wrestled with how he would continue to live his life. Today, the Harvard-graduate CEO and married father of four has resolved to live with “Eyes Wide Open.”
In fact, that’s the title of Lidsky’s new book, released in March and subtitled “Overcoming Obstacles and Recognizing Opportunities in a World That Can’t See Clearly.” The book reexamines a life that has been eventful since birth.
“I wanted to convince folks that in every moment, we choose how we want to live our lives, who we want to be,” Lidsky told The Times of Israel. “We’re doing it at every moment, whether we realize it or not.”
Born to Cuban Jewish refugees who escaped Fidel Castro’s regime, Lidsky was a young star in TV commercials and on the sitcom “Saved by the Bell: The New Class.” He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and clerked on the Supreme Court for justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He is currently the CEO of ODC Construction, an Orlando-based home building company. He and his wife Dorothy are the proud parents of four — including triplets.
Lidsky was diagnosed at age 13 with retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that gradually took away his sight, leaving him completely blind at 25.
“I awfulized — it’s a psychologist’s term, I love it — with the best of them,” Lidsky said. “I would lose independence, it would be the end of achievement for me, I would not enjoy the true love and respect of a woman. I would not love and respect myself.”
He “later learned” that these thoughts were “fictions, born of fear, ignorance.” But, he said, at the time “they felt no less real.”
From Cuba to the tube
“Both my parents’ families were Jews who wound up in Cuba,” said Lidsky. “They [escaped] religious persecution in Europe. My grandfathers started from scratch, two or three times in their life. It left a remarkable, definitive, lasting impression on my parents.”
His parents, whom Lidsky called “Jewbans,” were born and raised there until 1959, when Castro took over.
‘As a kid, I was in 100 to 150 commercials. I was a tiny part of a big thing’
“They were 13 or 14 years old,” Lidsky said. “It was time to make better plans. They wound up in the States.”
Their son would become an American TV sensation.
“As a kid, I was in 100 to 150 commercials,” Lidsky said. “I was a tiny part of a big thing.”
At 13, he joined “Saved by the Bell,” a show Lidsky described as “a Saturday morning empire” with “a large cult following.”
When NBC held a nationwide talent search for the sequel, “Saved by the Bell: The New Class,” Lidsky would secure the role of Barton “Weasel” Wyzell.
“That same year, I was also diagnosed,” Lidsky said. “I had a lot more going on than doing a sitcom.”
Lidsky was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) — what the National Institutes of Health describes as “a group of inherited eye diseases that affect the retina.”
The retina is “the light-sensitive part of the eye,” containing photoreceptor cells that “capture and process light helping us to see,” the NIH reports, also noting that RP breaks down and destroys these cells, with no cure.
Lidsky likened RP to “a Jumbotron scoreboard in an arena with millions of bulbs that randomly break over time.”
“You get data from the eyes,” he explained. “The brain puts together its best guess what’s going on. But the data from [my] eyes got worse and worse, the guesses got worse and worse.”
Seeing the forest
Two of Lidsky’s three older sisters were also diagnosed with RP.
“Both my parents threw themselves into philanthropy, efforts to support research, marshal community support in my hometown of Miami,” Lidsky said. “Fundraising, medical outreach. That was the way they dealt with it. I’m proud of them for doing that.”
“I kind of threw myself into the efforts, thinking I was courageous and proactive to confront [the disease],” he said. “I was really playing into the hands of my fears. I was somewhat in denial, perpetuating a baseless narrative of life as a race against time, blindness versus science.”
‘I was the helpless guy on the sideline praying for a Hollywood ending. It was not the right way to think about life’
“I was the helpless guy on the sideline,” he said, “praying for a Hollywood ending. It was not the right way to think about life.”
Lidsky focused on his education and career. He graduated from Harvard College in 1999, at age 19, and after several years in Internet advertising and technology, returned to Harvard — this time to Harvard Law School, where he graduated in 2004.
In his first year of law school, Lidsky began dating Dorothy Johnston, a Harvard College senior, who would become his wife.
“She took me completely by surprise,” Lidsky said. “She was never so terrified or worried about [my] erosion of sight as I was.”
Her mother, Brenda, a since-retired occupational therapist, also helped.
“[For] a patient who was thrown by a horse and is quadriplegic, Brenda would say, ‘Let’s work on the rest of a patient’s life, discuss solutions, practical problems to the smallest pieces,’” Lidsky recalled. “When I first met Dorothy, Brenda started to research solutions [for people who were] partially-sighted or blind. I would tag along with Brenda and Dorothy to meet a vision ophthalmic specialist, Chris, in Boston.”
‘There is no awful death sentence. All we have is now, in this moment’
“My first meeting with Chris was an epiphany,” Lidsky said. “It changed my life. I thought we would talk about blindness, the boogey man, doom and gloom, the future. All she talked about was today, right now, this moment, practical things.”
“There is no tomorrow,” he said. “There is no awful death sentence. All we have is now, in this moment. I decided in her office that day to choose to create the life that I wanted for myself. I had no one else to blame or pray to. In the end, it was up to me.”
Lidsky began taking practical steps. “Chris, as an after-visit follow-up, talked about learning to use a cane and said ‘If you’re a student, go talk to the disability office.’ It never even occurred to me to do that,” Lidsky said. “Harvard arranged for cane training, paid for it, as well as access to books, digital formats, and help with note-taking from peers.”
Lidsky became the first blind person to clerk on the Supreme Court. He applied for four straight years until justice Sandra Day O’Connor hired him that fourth year.
“I used to joke, ‘I’ll continue to apply until I’m older than the youngest justice,’” Lidsky said.
Though O’Connor — the first female Supreme Court Justice — had retired from the court when she hired Lidsky, he still was able to work for her on the intermediate appellate court. O’Connor also loaned him to current Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
O’Connor is “just a phenomenal human being, at every level,” Lidsky said. “She’s been so good to me and my family.”
He described his year on the court as “intense” and “awesome.”
“The Supreme Court is the most remarkable institution in US democracy,” he said. “I really wanted a year behind the scenes.”
Lidsky has since taken on new roles and responsibilities. In 2011, he moved with his wife and their year-old triplets from Manhattan to Orlando. Despite a slumping economy, he was reentering the business world with an old Harvard roommate.
“We were really excited by a residential construction company, a small company in Orlando,” he said.
Lidsky and his classmate purchased the company, ODC Construction.
It has been “a heck of a ride since,” Lidsky said.
Asked how his blindness currently affects him, he said, “It’s actually not nearly as bad as you might think… I use all sorts of adaptive technology, screen-reading software. I interact [with people] on a computer. I use my ears, not my eyes. I listen to everything.”
And, he said, “I travel a ton now to talk about the book, literally on my own. It’s not a problem.”
He loves the support from his family. “Dorothy, she is my everything partner,” he said. “I am nothing, I have nothing, that I don’t share with her.” And being a father is “without question, absolutely the greatest thing anyone can ever be, as far as I’m concerned. The kids are my everything, inspiration, pride, joy.”
Now he hopes to open up his story to the world.
“I am passionate about speaking about ‘Eyes Wide Open,’” he said. “I have speaking engagements and an interest to continue writing, so long as I feel it adds value to others’ lives.”