MOHEGAN LAKE, N.Y. - Lifelong Mohegan Lake resident Donnie Policastro has always been the first to help someone in need. Now, after suddenly losing most of his eyesight due to ocular strokes, friends and family want to give back and help him.
Last October, Donnie was doing what felt routine. He cooked and spent time with his family, whose recent addition, a shepherd retriever rescue dog named Buster, provided him the added task of vacuuming fur off the floors. But it wasn’t anything Donnie couldn’t handle. He had just begun what felt like one of a series of never-ending renovations in his home and still found time to decorate the outside for Halloween. He was happy to have recently started a new job he loved with the Motion Picture Studio Mechanics Local 52. While that sometimes came with 16-hour days, he said he was enjoying himself working on movie sets.
For the last 15 years, he has lived in a house that is three doors up from his childhood home. His sister-in-law, Kathy Policastro, who has known him since he was 5 years old, described him as a man who loves his community, shows up for his family and finds passion in his work. Residents may recognize him from when his family owned and operated several area gas stations. He may have even helped some personally during the 10 years he volunteered with the Mohegan Lake Volunteer Fire Department.
“He’s selfless,” Kathy said. When a family member was diagnosed with breast cancer, Kathy said he called a family meeting at his house to organize a task force to help them.
One day, Donnie was on set working when what he thought were shadows crept into his left eye. A few days later his peripheral vision faded and eventually he held his hand up and couldn’t see it.
Obviously concerned, he saw a doctor who told him there was a 15 percent chance it could happen to the right eye. Within two weeks it did.
The technical term for what happened to Donnie is called anterior ischemic optic neuropathy. He was told that there was nothing he could have done to prevent it and that there were no known cures, but steroid therapy might improve the condition if started early enough. According to the International Foundation for Optic Nerve Disease, those over the age of 50 are more prone to developing the condition. Donnie has just celebrated his 50th birthday.
With steroids, a healthy diet and supplements, his condition did improve, but his vision loss rendered him legally blind, or “partially sighted.” He described it as a fog that won’t lift. He could not return to work. He could not decipher which player on the field was his 9-year-old son, Robbie, as he scored his first goals in lacrosse and football. Unable to drive, he grew dependent on others, something, he said, he does not enjoy.
“I don’t want anyone to treat me differently,” he said. “If I walk you can’t tell if anything is wrong unless I see a step and I have to feel around.”
With the assistance of his family, Donnie is able to do the things he enjoys. He cooks, cleans, tosses a ball around the yard with his son, but it is not without challenges and he is disheartened.
“My family is the most important thing to me,” he said. “I just want to get back to taking care of them and seeing my kid play his sports and have a good life.”
After coping with what seemed like a bleak diagnosis for months, Donnie and his family found hope after a Fox News segment about a man who regained his eyesight after 10 years caught the attention of mother-in-law Merle Puk and wife Renée as they were about to go to lunch.
The man had participated in a clinical trial that took bone marrow-derived stem cells and used them to treat optic nerve and retinal diseases. Donnie said the man on the news had gotten a driver’s license after 10 years of being legally blind. The Policastros looked into the procedure and it was determined that Donnie is a good candidate for it. His nephew will accompany him to the location of the trial in Florida on Nov. 1, when he is scheduled for surgery.
“It’s a day we’re happy about because we are a family of faith and that’s All Saints’ Day,” Kathy said. “We feel like the family that is not with us any longer will be around for him.”
Donnie is optimistic about the procedure. In his research, he found it has a very low chance of further damaging his eyes and has helped people with conditions such as glaucoma and macular degeneration.
The treatment is patient-funded and costs about $20,000. Additionally, the family has already racked up medical bills and the trip to Florida will be an additional cost.
Donnie said he is thankful for the support he has received from “great friends and family” over the last year, especially his in-laws; his brother, Bobby; Kathy; his wife, Renée; and their son, Robbie. He said he hopes to return the favor by grilling for everyone next summer—without assistance.
“We take everything that we do for granted,” Kathy said. “One day, the lights just went out. It’s devastating. If he even gets sight back in one eye, he would be doing the biggest happy dance.”