World War II veteran is a sight for sore eyes

Ninety-year-old Sheldon Polan is a World War II veteran and retired optican who treats other veterans at the Long Island State Veterans Home in Stony Brook. (Photo by Laila Stevens.)

By Chelsea Sibri
The Scholars’ Academy

Optician Sheldon Polan has always had a singular vision: making a difference in his community.

For 10 years, Polan has volunteered weekly treating veterans at the Long Island State Veterans Home in Stony Brook. He does this work even after retiring 20 years ago in 1998.

“I am doing this because I’m enjoying doing this,” Polan said. “It’s mentally stimulating.”

Polan’s son and fellow optician, Andrew Polan, of Selden, described his father as a hard-working provider with a heart for serving others. The work they do together has allowed them to develop a “very close relationship,” Andrew said.

“I admire my father,” Andrew said. “It’s a good cause.”

One of the elder Polan’s patients, U.S. Navy veteran Gerald Busic, said he appreciates the great service Polan provides.

“He’s courteous, he’s knowledgeable, he’s professional,” Busic said. “What more could you ask for?”

Fred Sganga, executive director of the Long Island State Veterans Home, highlighted the importance and contribution of Polan’s service there.

“We’re enamored that Sheldon, who is a veteran, is actually continuing to serve veterans in terms of their health care needs, which I just think is great,” Sganga said. “I mean, we think it’s wonderful. Sheldon understands what being a veteran is all about. And who better to provide care to veterans than a veteran?”

Polan’s medical journey began after he returned safely from World War II. At first, Polan spent his time working long hours pumping gas at the biggest gas station in Brooklyn at the time, just to survive.

“I was working 80 hours a week, making good money, but there was a blizzard coming on. My kid brother came. He said: ‘What are you doing here? Are you out of your mind?’ And I said, ‘I gotta make a living, what do you mean?’ He said: ‘Why don’t you go into the field I’m in … You’re smarter than me. It’s gonna be easy for you.’ ”

Polan then returned to school at 40 years old and juggled work and school all at once.

“I used to go to work at five in the morning, work until five at night, go from six at night till 11 at night,” Polan said. “And I did that for three years.”

Later on, while he was at the same gas station, a chance bittersweet encounter with an ophthalmologist from Kings County Hospital gave him a life-changing opportunity. During a blizzard, he had an angry exchange with the doctor, who then drove off.

“About an hour and a half later, he called me and apologized,” Polan recalled. “He had just come from Kings County Hospital, where he had a difficult patient, and he’s taking it out on me.”

Their conversation continued two days later.

“I was sitting and studying for a test, and he came in, and he looked at me, and he said: ‘What are you reading?’ And I said: ‘I don’t know what your field is.’ He said: ‘Well, I’m an ophthalmologist. … If you want to learn this, if you scrub with me once or twice, you won’t need the book.’ Two days later, he picked me up. Everything started to come naturally. We became very good friends.”

That exchange led Polan to a long association with Dr. Norman Stahl and a career in eye care.

Polan’s charitable work is nothing new. He has participated in volunteer missions in Ghana and in Liberia, where he was able to meet the Liberian president.

“What you take for granted here, they haven’t got,” Polan said. “We would see patients from 6 o’clock in the morning until almost midnight the next day.”

Polan also keeps busy reading, breezing through fiction books and newspapers highlighting current events. In order to keep practicing, he had to take classes and tests online for credits.

“The worst thing you could do is stop, sit down in a chair, and do nothing,” Polan said. “If I wasn’t doing this, I’d be doing something else.”

Sganga and the veterans that Polan serves are glad he has chosen not to do something else. Sganga put it this way: “Sheldon is giving them the gift of sight.”

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