From open water to a dark room | San Diego sailing icon says he was blinded after an eye surgeon used dirty instruments

In a newly filed lawsuit, a San Diego sailing business owner says he went blind from infection during bilateral cataract surgery.

Tom Hirsh has spent his life on the ocean, competing in sailing races and running Harbor Sailboats out of Shelter Island.

But at 68 years old, Hirsh’s days on the open water are over after a February 2022 cataract surgery forced him to abandon ship and left him delegated to a dark window-tinted room, unable to cope with even a minor amount of light.

Hirsh says that during the surgery an infection known as toxic anterior segment syndrome (TASS) likely from dirty instruments or polluted eyewash entered both eyes, permanently preventing him from dilating his pupils to adjust to the light, essentially rendering him blind.

“It feels like if you were laying in your bed sleeping and somebody flipped the lights on,” Hirsh told CBS 8 during a February 3 interview. “Normally, you’re blind for a short period of time until your eyes can constrict to light. Mine? Well, they don’t do that anymore.”

Added Hirsh, “I can only take my sunglasses off when I’m in a room with no light and no windows. I can take them off for short periods of time if I have to try to see something.”

Hirsh says he scheduled bilateral cataract surgery in February of 2022 through his medical group, Kaiser Permanente. The procedure was performed at the Outpatient Surgery Center of Del Mar.

Hirsh woke up from the surgery with pain and sensitivity to light. He says he was told that would happen and that it could last a few days. However, later that night, the sailing captain says the pain worsened. The following day, he was still unable to see. At a post-op meeting with his doctor, Hirsh told his surgeon about the pain and his lack of sight. The doctor said the inflammation should subside in the coming days and that it was normal. Hirsh believed him.

Five days later, Hirsh was still unable to see and was in pain. He called his doctor again.

It was the first time he had heard the phrase “toxic anterior segment syndrome,” more commonly called “TASS.”

Hirsh said if he had known there was a possibility for an infection, he would have never left the surgery center after the operation.

“In retrospect, if I’d known then what I know now, then I never would have left that office; I would have said, ‘I want another opinion.’ I’m not physically leaving this office until I get an explanation,” said Hirsh.

Hirsh says it wasn’t until a week later that he was told the condition was permanent.

His blindness has forced him to make some major life adjustments.

He turned over his sailing business to his two sons, who he taught how to sail when they were kids.

He questions whether he can remain living on his boat in San Diego Harbor after falling because he cannot see more than an arm’s length away for a few seconds before he is forced to shield his eyes from the light.

But Hirsh fears he is not the only one infected that same week at the North San Diego eye clinic.

Hirsh says his doctor told him nine others were infected with TASS. The extent of their injuries, says Hirsh, is unknown.

On February 1, Hirsh filed a lawsuit against the Outpatient Surgery Center of Del Mar, Kaiser Permanente, which contracts with the surgery center and the doctor who performed the surgery.

Hirsh says he hopes his lawsuit will hold those accountable for taking away what he has spent the vast majority of his life doing, as well as to prevent others from suffering a similar fate.

“I want to know what happened. I want to know when they knew and what when they knew and what they knew,” Hirsh said. “Nobody has ever contacted me. No one from the Medical Group ever contacted me. Nobody picks up the phone. In my business, if I hurt somebody or screw something up, I get on the phone, and I call them up and say, ‘we screwed up. How do we make it right?’ Just acknowledge that you screwed up. There’s been nothing. I feel they hope I die before I can bring a lawsuit.”

Attorneys Bibi Fell and Jennifer Johnson represent Hirsh in his quest for accountability.

Fell says her firm’s investigators have confirmed a TASS outbreak at the clinic around the same time her client was infected.

“In investigating this case, we learned that, unfortunately, Tom Hirsch was not the only victim; the site where he received his surgery had a contaminated cluster of victims; we are pretty certain there are at least nine, and there could be many more,” said Fell.

Fell says that while TASS is a known risk, the surgery center failed to take adequate steps to prevent the outbreak.

“TASS has been a problem known in the industry for quite some time; there are protocols that need to be followed, sterilization procedures that need to be followed. And that just did not happen in this case,” said Fell.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Kaiser Permanente wrote, “While we cannot comment on personal health information, our physicians and dedicated health care professionals are committed to providing the highest quality health care for our patients in a safe and equitable manner and in accordance with all federal and state guidelines. The well-being of our patients is our highest priority.”

A spokesperson for the clinic did not respond to CBS 8’s request for comment.

As for Hirsh, he says every time he thinks about not sailing again, he reminds himself of his brother, who is now largely immobile due to a recent stroke.

“He’s in a chair, he’s in a bed, but despite that, he keeps his sense of humor, keeps his positivity,” Hirsh says of his brother. “He’s a hit with all the ladies in the restaurant, so whenever I feel sorry for myself, I think of him and how strong he is. He’s my inspiration.”

James Price

James Price