Most likely, you have probably never heard of Helen Dorothy Vasko and there is good reason for that: Her story has become a forgotten footnote to history. Yet, her fascinating story was one that made headlines across the United States back in 1933.
Helen’s father John had emigrated from his native Czechoslovakia to the United States in 1923, with his wife Anna (reported as Mary) and daughter Mary following seven years later. Helen – the main focus of this story – and her twin sister Anna came into this world on January 22, 1931, born in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, which lies on the eastern bank of the Hudson River, approximately 20 miles (32 km) north of midtown Manhattan. (If Hastings-on-Hudson has a familiar ring to it, that is because it was also the setting of the incident between Isabel McHie and her chauffeur in the previous podcast.)
Life was incredibly tough for the Vasko family. Not only were they strangers in a new land, but the world was in the midst of the Great Depression. While John had previously worked as both a gardener and a factory worker, all job opportunities had since dried up and he was now employed by the Westchester County Emergency Work Bureau. Rent for their three-bedroom 21 Ridge Street basement apartment – a building that still stands today – was $15 per month. ($305 today.) While that may not sound like much for rent, when one has very little money coming in, that is a big part of a family’s monthly budget.
Their lives would forever be changed when public health nurse May Christopher examined Helen for a problem with her left eye. At the time, Helen was nineteen days shy of her second birthday. Ms. Christopher later told a reporter for the New York Daily News, “Mrs. Vasko brought the baby to my clinic last Jan. 3. I advised boric solution, and immediately made an appointment at Grasslands Hospital for January 25.” (Sidenote: Grasslands Hospital now operates as the Westchester Medical Center University Hospital.)
She continued, “On Jan. 24 the mother brought the child again saying the father had consulted a doctor, who advised immediate attention. Next day, at Grasslands, the ailment was diagnosed as a malignant tumor.”
“On Jan. 26 the doctors, knowing the condition was probably congenital in such a young person, examined Helen’s twin, Anna. She was all right.”
Helen had been diagnosed with retinal glioma, which, according to Wikipedia, is referred to as retinoblastoma today. Doctors believed that Helen had already lost vision in her left eye but that she was too young to understand what blindness was. Surgery to remove the eye was Helen’s only hope. Without it, doctors were certain that the tumor would spread to her brain and result in death. Even with the removal of her eye, they believed that there was only a 50/50 chance that she would survive the operation.
What brought this story to national attention was that the Vaskos were deeply religious and refused to allow doctors to perform the surgery. When told that her decision would lead to her daughter’s death, Mrs. Vasko stated, “God’s will be done.” She added, “But she will not die. I pray—pray, all the time.”
And pray for a miracle is exactly what she did. Inside her bedroom, Mrs. Vasko set up a shrine of flowers, candles, and religious pictures. Every day she would recite prayers for hours in the hope that a miracle would cure Helen.
When others attempted to convince the Vaskos that surgery was the best option, they responded with stories of miraculous recoveries that had occurred within their family. First was the story of Mrs. Vasko’s father, a farmer back in Czechoslovakia who had become paralyzed. His family prayed for his recovery, which resulted in him fully regaining his ability to walk several years later. Mr. Vasko stated that his mother had suffered from an unidentified swelling that covered her entire body, from which prayer cured her.
It was through prayer that the Vaskos hoped to heal young Helen. Based on their observations, it appeared to be working. “See—she’s all right. She’s better, in fact,” John Vasko told a reporter. “When we first noticed the eye, there was a swelling. Now that’s gone.”
After the Vaskos refused surgery, Helen’s case was turned over to the Westchester County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The organization did all that it could to persuade the couple to allow for the operation. After all attempts had failed, the decision was made to take the case to the courts.
In the couple’s first hearing before Westchester Children’s Court Judge George W. Smyth in March 1933, doctors, Catholic priests, and the judge himself pleaded with Mrs. Vasko to allow Helen to undergo the surgery. She refused and stated, “No one knows whether my child is diseased. If she is going to die naturally, probably she would be better than she is now.”
After carefully reviewing all of the medical testimony, Judge Smyth had no choice but to issue an order for the removal of Helen’s eye. He then appointed Yonkers’ attorney Francis (Frank) R. Fay as Helen’s guardian ad litem (court-appointed guardian) and to be counsel for Vaskos. Since Smyth was not aware of a similar case that had been decided by the courts, he directed Fay to immediately appeal the decision to test its validity.
The question of who, the state or the parents, could ultimately decide Helen’s fate broke in newspapers across the country on Wednesday, April 12, 1933. That same day, concerned neighbors informed the police that Helen was sick, so Dr. Michael Bender was sent to examine her. He determined that she had a cold and a slight fever. Dr. Bender attempted to return the following day but was unable to get near the Vasko home. There were so many reporters and cameramen on the street that the Vaskos had no choice but to barricade themselves within their apartment. Terrified by the sudden attention, the couple moved the entire family to the rear of the apartment, which overlooked a steep dropoff and was inaccessible to the nosey press.
The next day, Helen’s father spoke with his parish priest and seemed to come around to the idea of allowing the court to decide Helen’s fate. “The law knows best. If the law says the child must lose its eye, I will say all right.” Yet, Mrs. Vasko was unchanged in her decision. She continued her daily prayer while treating Helen’s eye with herbal drops obtained from someone in Pennsylvania.
Then, on Saturday, the Vasko family disappeared. Milkman James Brody (also reported as Brophy) said that around 4:35 that morning, the door of the Vasko home opened and John Vasko’s face peered out into the alleyway. Once he was certain that all was clear, he signaled to his wife and she carried Helen out of the building. Twin Anna held on to her mother’s hand as older sister Mary locked the door.
Just where could they have gone? They had been sighted walking through a nearby village, but that was the last anyone had seen of them. Andrew Lesko of Passaic, New Jersey, who was married to Mrs. Vasko’s sister Barbara, arrived in town that day to talk to the couple, said that he had not seen them. It was thought by some that the Vaskos had fled to Pennsylvania but there was no evidence of that.
The mystery would be solved Monday evening. Mr. Vasko made an unexpected visit to the home of Police Commissioner Frederick Charles, requesting police protection for both his home and his family. Commissioner Charles said that he would place a patrolman on guard outside their apartment Tuesday morning, so Vasko agreed to bring his family back home. Vasko said that his family had spent the Easter weekend at the home of a cousin.
A Decision is Made
Yet, Tuesday would not bring the Vaskos relief from all of the unwanted attention and pressure. In a unanimous decision, the Appellate Division in Brooklyn upheld Judge Smyth’s ruling that Helen should receive the surgery. The opinion, written by Associate Justice Hagarty, states in part, “The law is not only zealous in protection of civil rights of infants but has a special regard for the moral care, training and guidance of children.”
He continues, “but its beneficence extends also to conservation of health of children, their physical well-being, as well as to the preservation of their lives. If parents or guardians neglect their duty in respect to any one of those obligations, the State in its wisdom, through its laws, intervenes. While the question now before us has never been presented to an appellate court in this State in so far as I am able to determine, power in the court to act rests upon ample authority.”
Justice Hagarty adds, “Medicine and surgery are not exact sciences and the result of an operation may not be foretold with accuracy. Decision must be made, and the parents persist in their refusal to consent. Children come into the world helpless, subject to all the ills to which flesh is heir. They are entitled to the benefit of all laws made for their protection—whether affecting their property, their personal rights, or their persons—by the Legislature, the sovereign power of the State. The learned court has acted in this case not only in strict compliance with the law but with scrupulous care and moderation and upon ample and competent proof. His discretion should not be disturbed.”
Attorney Fay declined to comment on the appellate court’s decision until he had time to discuss it with the Vaskos. But there was one big problem: the Vaskos had once again disappeared. John Zabavnik, with whom they had stayed for Easter, said he had not seen them since. The press speculated that the family had fled the state to escape its jurisdiction.
As police searched for the Vascos, Dr. E. C. Wood, head of the Grasslands Hospital eye department, issued a plea for the family to return ASAP. He warned that with each passing day, Helen had less and less of a chance of a successful recovery.
On Thursday, April 20, Judge Smyth issued a plea for the press to stop hounding the Vaskos. “My efforts would be greatly facilitated if the newspapers would call off the reporters and cameramen so that the parents may feel secure against further invasion of their privacy and may feel at liberty to get in touch with me. I realize that the news value of the case from the standpoint of the papers, but I hope that where a child’s life is at stake I may count on their cooperation.”
He also revealed he had lost a child years before from a brain tumor. “I am conscious of the distress to the mother,” he said, “and hope she will understand in the end that our sole purpose is to bring to the baby’s aid the best that modern medical knowledge affords, in order that the little one may be spared an agonizing death.”
The following morning, Attorney Fay was able to make contact with the Vaskos by sending messages via their relatives. Mr. and Mrs. Vasko agreed that they would allow doctors to examine Helen if it did not result in her receiving surgery.
Helen was wrapped in a blue blanket and held tightly by her mother as the couple met Frank Fay in front of their apartment. Along with an interpreter, they all hopped in the lawyer’s car and a police car escorted them to the Eye Institute at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan. A team of specialists examined Helen for more than an hour, after which the Vaskos went back into hiding. The next day, the doctors’ report was released and it affirmed that Helen required immediate surgery to save her life.
On Sunday, the Vaskos informed attorney Fay that the couple had been unable to reach an agreement. Helen’s mom was still opposed to the surgery. Judge Smyth requested that all parties meet in his chamber on Monday. That’s when it was revealed that the Vaskos had not gone back into hiding. Authorities knew exactly where they were and kept them out of public view. The couple had been residing at the home of Theodore Murin, Judge Smyth’s secretary.
In the Judge’s Chamber…
After three hours of discussion, Judge Smyth issued the following statement: “About 8 o’clock tonight Mr. and Mrs. Vasko surrendered Helen to the children’s court and consented to the operation. The child was placed in a hospital selected by the mother for temporary care, subject to further orders of the court. The wishes of the parents will be consulted tomorrow as to the surgeon to be selected to perform the operation. Consent was given after a conference of several hours between the parents, Mr. Fay, Judge Smyth and some of his staff.”
Yet, Frank Cherico, Chief Deputy Sheriff of Westchester County, had a totally different take on what had transpired:
“The conference lasted four hours. Judge Smyth called Deputy Sheriff Frank Ruscoe and me to his chambers about 4 PM and told us he had signed a new order for the operation.
“The judge was at his desk in the big room. Mrs. Vasko, hugging her baby tightly, sat across from him. The father was in another chair and Frank and I stood against the wall.
“There were two interpreters, but Teddy Murin, Judge Smyth’s secretary, was the only one who could understand Mrs. Vasko’s dialect. She’s only been over here three years. When her husband came over ten years ago, he left her in Czechoslovakia with their year-old daughter, Mary.
Cherico quoted the judge as saying, ‘Tell her we waited two weeks for her to make up her mind. Tell her that two courts have decided that Helen must have the operation, and that we can’t wait for the highest court in the state to decide because Helen might die in the meantime.’
Cherico described what happened next: “So Teddy told her, but she just hung onto her baby tighter and said something back. Teddy told the judge she was afraid the operation would kill Helen, and anyhow she would rather have her dead than have one her eyes out.
The judge then stated, ’Tell her she is only an ignorant woman and the courts know best. And tell her that the baby will have the best of care, better than she could get anywhere else in the world.’
Cherico added, “The father sat looking at the floor. Judge Smyth asked him for an opinion. He shrugged his shoulders.
“ ‘The law say operate, my wife say no. What can I do?’
Cherico went on, “Finally Judge Smyth stood up and waved a paper. He was sick, having undergone an operation last week, and I wondered [how] he kept his patience so long.”
The Judge then said, ‘Here’s a court order for the operation. There are the deputy sheriffs to enforce it,’ he said. ‘I insist there be no more delay.’
Cherico concluded, “He nodded to us. I went to the mother and held out my arms for the girl. She just slumped in her chair. I picked up Helen and carried her from the room.
“It went against the grain, leaving that poor, stricken woman sitting there. I haven’t been able to think about anything else all day.”
Both Judge Smyth and Mr. Fay denied Cherico’s version of what had transpired and both agreed that the mother had voluntarily surrendered Helen.
When a reporter from the New York Times questioned the father as to whether his wife had agreed to the operation or not, he replied, “No! No! That’s not true. The judge he talked for three hours. Then my wife she got to go home to our other children. Then the judge said to three big men, ‘Take her!’ and the men took her away.
“They broke my wife’s heart. She’s been sick ever since. My wife told the judge there were hundreds of people in the city with no arms, no legs, no eyes; but the government doesn’t take them and make them have an operation. They beg on the street. Why must they take my happy baby? They told my wife the baby would die. Well, everybody has to die some time. The baby belonged to its mother and it is not for the judge to decide what’s best.”
In the end, it didn’t matter which version of the story was correct. Helen was taken into surgery the following day, Tuesday, April 25, 1933. Mrs. Vasko was too ill to attend the surgery, so the couple stayed home as Helen went under the knife.
Afterward, the hospital issued the following statement, penned by Dr. Iago Galdston: “Helen Vasko was operated on today at 4:25 P.M. at the Eye Institute of the Presbyterian Hospital. The operation, which was performed by Dr. John H. Dunnington, was completed in thirteen minutes. The diseased eye was removed, together with a section of the eye nerve. The child was found to suffer from a malignant tumor, which is technically called a glioma, a term indicating a pathologic or disease involving the retina or the sensitive back layer of the eye. The cause of the glioma is unknown.
“Medical experience has shown that in glioma, the condition, when not operated upon, extends and always terminates fatally. The success of the operation depends upon the early removal of the tumor. If operation is not performed early, the growth at times becomes so extensive as to render its complete extirpation at operation impossible.
“In the case of Helen Vasko, an operation for the removal of the diseased eyeball was advised in January of this year.
“A microscopic examination of the tissue is to be made shortly. This examination ought to reveal the extent to which the disease process has invaded the optic nerve.
“While operation offers to the sufferer of glioma of the eye the only possible chance of conserving life, this chance is not a full one, in so far as experience has demonstrated that in at least 50 per cent of the cases the extension of the disease process at the time of operation is too advanced.
“The condition of the patient at the end of the operation was entirely satisfactory.”
Those are words that only a doctor could love…
Back at the Vasko residence, the couple nervously awaited the results of the surgery and testing. “My wife is sick in bed and I cannot leave her,” husband John told reporters. “I can’t see the baby because I’ve got to watch my wife. She says if the baby die, she die too. I’m afraid the baby won’t get well. They said the baby was blind, but she played so well. She could see everything. She would pick up little pins from the carpet. Her eyes seemed all right.”
Two days after the surgery, the hospital issued another statement: “The child is doing well. She is sitting up in bed, playing with her toys and dolls. She appears content. She is not running a temperature and has no untoward symptoms.”
The test results were released later that afternoon: “The pathological laboratory of the Eye Institute reports that a microscopic examination of the diseased eye of Helen Vasko reveals that the growth did not extend into the optic nerve. This finding renders the prognosis favorable.”
On Friday, Helen’s bandages were removed and a patch was placed over the eye socket. Her father was finally able to visit her and seemed relieved.
Release from Hospital
Helen continued to steadily improve and was released from the hospital on Saturday, May 6, 1933. Judge Smyth’s secretary Theodore Murin drove Helen and her parents back to their home, where they were once again surrounded by reporters and photographers. John Vasko pushed his way through the crowd, entered his apartment, and reemerged moments later armed with a baseball bat and a broom handle. A tussle ensued, which resulted in two smashed cameras and numerous bruises.
Within days, Helen’s story had moved from the front page to yesterday’s news. In an August 6 New York Times follow-up story, John Vasko commented, “Everybody was interested in Helen. It was Helen this and Helen that. Now nobody cares.”
The family’s financial picture had not improved either. “I have no job. I get $5 a week relief, we owe for the rent.” He continued, “You see, Helen has no glass eye yet. I think maybe she ought to have one. But we have no money.”
Upon hearing that last statement, Nina Webster, an NRA (National Recovery Administration) captain in Manhattan, ordered a glass eye to be made for Helen and requested that the bill be sent to her. Judge Smyth quickly squashed that plan. The county had intended all along to purchase the artificial eye but doctors said that she was still too young to have one. He wrote, “I am deeply appreciative of Miss Webster’s kind offer. She has consented to abide by my wishes that when the time comes for the new eye to be put in she may defray the expenses if she still desires to. In the meantime we are trying to get the father, John Vasko, a position as gardener.”
In August 1938, Judge Smyth found himself in a similar situation to that of Helen Vasko. This time, a boy named Anthony Spiak had been crippled by polio and needed surgery so that he could walk again. In a bit of déjà vu, his father wouldn’t allow his son to be operated upon. Ultimately, based on the precedent set by Helen Vasko’s case, the court would order the surgery.
But before that decision was handed down, The New York Times asked Mrs. Vasko for her opinion: “If I had known what doctors can do, I never would have fought so long in court. I’m glad now that Helen was operated upon. Before she was always sick and I never knew what was the matter. I didn’t think doctors could do anything. Now she is always well and happy. I would like to tell the father of that boy that he can rely on the doctors.”
Not long after this, the Vaskos would move to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where John found work at the Remington Arms factory there. Helen would grow up in Bridgeport and graduate from Warren Harding High School before marrying Ferdinand Grunik on August 2, 1952. Sadly, her cancer would return and she would pass away on December 7, 1963, at 32 years of age. She was survived by her parents, siblings, husband, and two young children, aged five and seven at the time.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.