Let me begin at the end. I received a call this morning from Ira Cochin’s granddaughter, Renata Martin. She wanted to make sure that I received word that “Doc” had died, and that his funeral was this afternoon. The family was on its way to meet with the community’s Rabbi, Benjamin Yudin, and the consensus was that they would be honored if I spoke at his funeral. Given the special bond that we had, it was impossible to say no. In fact, I was honored to be asked.
As to the beginning. It was the summer of 1970, between my first and second year as an undergraduate at Yeshiva University, when I worked as a junior counselor at Camp Morasha in Lake Como, PA. There I met a young woman, Esther Schneider, whose family lived in Fair Lawn, NJ – a town commutable by bus from Manhattan. In the course of visiting the town on several weekends, I was introduced to a fascinating friend of the family, Ira “Doc” Cochin. He left an impression on me, but I met Miriam and matrimony and graduate school took us to the Pennsylvania College of Optometry where I embarked on an academic career. Doc Cochin and Fair Lawn faded …
In 1982 I received the offer of a dream job to serve as Chief of the Vision Therapy Service at the State University of New York’s College of Optometry in Manhattan. Miriam’s parents had moved to Fair Lawn and recalling my fondness for the community years earlier, we immediately thought of settling there to raise our family. It was at that point that Doc Cochin and I crossed paths again, and I was floored to see him walk into the synagogue with a cane, tapping his way toward the front section of seats. I re-introduced myself, a challenge since he had not only lost his vision but his hearing as well, and began a relationship that would become a serendipitous collaboration that enriched both our lives over the course of the next 34 years.
Doc was multifaceted, a real-life version of the big screen’s “Doc Brown“, and thankfully one of his gifts was writing. We therefore have a wonderful chronicle of his life owing to the books that he left behind. They are self-published through Xlibris, and the one I’ll elaborate on is Silent Music. In Chapter 18, Dr. Cochin details his growing awareness that he was able to sense walls and other objects by the current of hair on his arm. Ira was embarking on his own version of sensory substitution, an emerging field that would study how to actively compensate for the loss of one sense by supplementation through another. In his case, touch, kinesthesia, and somatosensation would become his primary channels for incoming information. With the determination of a scientist, Doc experimented with pasting various lengths of hair on his arm but developed a rash to the glue that made this impractical. Researching any means by which he might supplement the body’s natural hair he learned that Minoxidil, a potent anti-hypertensive medication, had the unwanted effect of growing hair on various parts of the body. Dermatologists began applying various topical formulations of the drug (Upjohn Pharmaceuticals would parlay this into a windfall by packaging Minoxidil as Rogaine), and Doc found his way to a practitioner in New York who supplied him with the cream but the hair growth on his arms was insignificant. The dermatologist made the suggestion that he take the drug systemically but it came with the caveat of significant potential hemorrhagic side-effects. He insisted that Doc be monitored through his family physician to monitor the maximum dosage of a risk-laden drug. They titrated the drug up and down, Doc having his wife Dinah measure the hair growth on his arms with a micrometer over the course of six months, and settled on a dosage of 15 milligrams per day.
Dr. Cochin would astound congregants in his synagogue with the ability to shake their hand once and place his fingers near their vocal chords as they spoke their name. With his prodigious memory his brain would form an imprint of this vibratory coupling of name and handshake. Though this seemed like an entertaining parlor trick, it was based in part on Doc’s just-enough-increased fine hair on his palms. More astounding, his original goal of increasing hair sensitivity on his arms was working to the point where he could cross the street of the synagogue to the Rabbi’s house unaided. You see, it was not just static walls that Doc could sense, but with his amplified sense of vibration he could detect the speed and direction of approaching cars well before the fully-sighted.
As intriguing as the story already is, the students in Doc’s specially adapted lab at NJIT were beginning to notice that his visual navigation was tantalizingly good, and some might say suspiciously good, around the same time that I made a similar observation during our Sabbath interactions. It occurred to him that he hadn’t had his eye examined in several years and perhaps something was changing about his vision. That is when he asked if he could come to my office, which became the substance of Chapter 19 in an incredible life’s journey that he titled “Seeing is Believing”.