Joe Caruso, owner of FOCUS Wines, knows life both with and without the ability to see. His first memory is sitting in the waiting room at Scheie Institute in Philadelphia at just 3 years old with with his Mother, Carol Caruso. Carol was a well-respected hair stylist with several very special clients including the family who owned the Campbell’s Soup company. It was through this connection that Joe was able to find Dr. Scheie. Appointments with the world-renown Ophthalmologist were very difficult to secure, but because Carol’s client was also a very generous donor to the Scheie Institute, the young Joe was able to be seen.
Joe was born with congenital cataracts which had progressed so badly that he had almost become blind by age 3. As they were waiting for hours for their first appointment with Dr. Scheie, Joe’s mother read a notice that said cataracts are the leading cause of permanent blindness. She knew then that they had to do everything they could to save her child’s sight.
During the initial consultation, it was determined that the best form of treatment was a series of surgeries to remove the cataracts piece by piece. At this time, laser surgery was just being developed and was unproven. Dr. Scheie directed the Caruso family to let little Joey’s cataracts fully develop before he would perform the first procedure. The results created two fully white eyes and Joe simply could not see. Dr. Scheie’s typical patients were over the age of 65 as cataracts generally occur in seniors, not young children.
It took 9 surgeries over a period of 2 years for Dr. Scheie to obtain the results he was looking for. Each surgical process would require general anesthesia and almost two weeks’ recovery time. Joe remembers being in the hospital surrounded by senior citizens who would, at times, be entertained by Joe’s antics in the waiting room. Remember, this was life as Joe Caruso knew it. Each surgery would repair his eyesight by a fraction. This was cause to celebrate by just being a kid, as best he could.
There were complications along the way and Joe remembers excruciating pain in one eye where pressure had increased greatly overnight to the point of potential rupture. This pressure is a symptom of glaucoma and was closely monitored. Joe remembers how attentive the doctors and staff at Scheie Institute were and how relieved he was when they alleviated his pain. This entire process was cutting edge at the time, and Dr. Scheie took copious notes to document all he could for future reference.
The final surgery at age 5 provided Joe with 20/100 eyesight as long as he wore his very thick glasses. He was still legally blind without his glasses. There was nerve damage in both eyes and nystagmus which causes the eye to shake at times. But Joe could see. Still legally blind, he was entered into Benchmark School for students who were bright under-achievers requiring additional assistance. Joe had to play catch-up for several years and struggled to maintain his vision. He remembers the day a teacher finally figured out that Joe was actually able to read on an advanced level – but he could not see the small letters. She handed him a large print book and he excelled immediately. Joe and his family are forever grateful for all involved at Benchmark School.
Joe wore his thick glasses until he was 11. Then the day came he was able to wear contacts. He claims this was the biggest day of his life. He had been treated differently his entire life and he finally felt like a normal student. He was able to adapt to society much more easily than before. But this came with a catch – while Joe didn’t wear the glasses that represented his inability to see, he still was legally blind. People began to assume he could see as well as they could, which required Joe to spend the rest of his life trying to mask his blindness.
Joe progressed through middle and high school and learned great things about society. It took the love and support of some very special people to encourage him to live as normally as possible. Additionally, sports and driving presented their challenges to overcome. He learned you can truly judge someone’s character by how they treat someone who is different.
As a young man, Joe excelled in many ways and continued to surprise his doctors with all he accomplished. He contributes this to his parents raising him as though he could truly see. Both his mother and father have incredible stories of watching Joe overcome his fears.
Joe had his first child in 2009 and his second in 2010. Unfortunately, Parker and Shea were both born with the same congenital cataracts as their father. Joe says the world completely stopped when Parker was diagnosed. For the next several years, the Caruso sisters would have over 17 surgeries between them to save their eyesight. While at that point in time, there were new techniques including the more fully-developed laser surgeries, Joe remembered Dr. Scheie’s notes. Joe found Dr. Ewing, who had studied under Dr. Scheie. Dr. Ewing’s files were his mentor’s notes on Joe’s childhood case. Dr. Scheie’s handwritten notes from 41 years prior described his strategy to save a child’s sight. Shea Caruso was named after Dr. Scheie even before they knew his techniques would be required to save her sight.
The years when most families watch their children crawl, walk, and run were consumed with hospitals and surgeries for the Caruso family. Joe recalls the hours spent in the waiting room of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia alongside other parents who were anxiously awaiting their young children to return from surgeries. Devastatingly, some children would never recover. It was at this point, the Caruso parents committed to giving back as much as they could to support the efforts of these hospitals. The FOCUS Foundation was born.
A long-time professional in the wine business, Joe has a successful import/wholesale company based in Cape May, NJ. After building the business for several years, Joe found the opportunity to create his own brand called FOCUS wines and gives a portion of the proceeds directly back to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and other Premier Children’s Eye Institutions. Joe reminds himself every day that it was only through the generosity of his mother’s customer so long ago that he was able to begin his path to vision. He is determined to pay that back in his own way through the FOCUS Foundation.
“Parker” Pinot Noir is the first wine to launch, to be followed by “Shea” Chardonnay, and "Zion" Cabernet Sauvignon, with more to come. The first introduction of “Parker” Pinot Noir coincides with the Escape the Cape triathlon in the Caruso’s hometown. Joe found the high-intensity training for triathlons allowed him to have an outlet for all the emotions of dealing with his daughters’ and his own vision issues and surgeries. He had heard about a local Cape May friend who had qualified multiple times for the IRONMAN world championships in Kona. Joe thought he could never accomplish such a feat. He recalls he went home that same day, looked at his daughters in their thick little glasses and realized he never wanted to be an example of “I can’t.” Joe has gone on to complete two full IRONMANS along with almost 40 triathlons. Most importantly, he has not given up on his mission to see. With the help of his doctors, Joe is now seeing almost 20/20.
Joe encourages his team at FOCUS Wines to always be grateful for the opportunities given to them, and the best way to show that gratitude is to give back. Both Parker and Shea exemplify that spirit every day as they grow into beautiful young ladies
…that can see.
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FOCUS Wines give back to Children’s Hospitals at Escape the Cape Triathlon
Event Date: June 14, 2015
Only a few races begin with jumping off a boat to start your triathlon... now, imagine doing it legally blind. Joe Caruso, owner of FOCUS Wines, is very familiar with this feeling. The avid tri-athlete, business owner, and father was born with congenital cataracts as were his two daughters, Parker and Shea. Every day, they still struggle to maintain their vision. These young girls, along with many other children with vision-threatening medical issues, have been helped by several premiere Children’s Hospitals and Ophthalmology Centers in the Philadelphia area including CHOP, Scheie Eye Institute, and University of Penn. These doctors and their teams have provided numerous procedures, therapies, and support that have allowed so many to live a life with sight.
The Caruso family owns a wine import and wholesale company based in Cape May, NJ and is launching their first private label, FOCUS, at the upcoming triathlon, Escape the Cape by Delmo Sports, at the Cape May Ferry Terminal on June 14th. FOCUS Wines are hand-picked from the central coast of California and were created to be a major contributor to funds at Children’s Hospitals. A portion of the proceeds from every FOCUS Wine goes back to give children from around the world their chance to experience life the way all kids should: with health, joy, and hope.
The first varietal “Parker” Pinot Noir will be poured by the glass at the terminal and throughout the event. This will be Joe Caruso third year racing Escape the Cape. Joe has completed two full Ironman races at Lake Placid and over 40 triathlons. Come meet this incredible family, taste some excellent wine, and give back to a special cause.
GIVING BACK TO CHILDREN'S HOSPITALS