Growing up, popular Twin Cities outdoors writer Tori McCormick had it made.
As a kid in Belle Plaine and Shakopee, he called the Minnesota River Valley home, and the river itself his home waters. Those were good times, and in later years, while in college at the U and at the University of St. Thomas, while serving in the Army and while living in South Dakota and, later, North Dakota, more good times followed.
This was before one beautiful September day in 2009, when he was hunting doves in North Dakota. He was working then in Bismarck as communications director of the conservation group Delta Waterfowl, and as associate editor of its magazine.
“I pulled up on the first bird I saw that day, and these big black floaters appeared in my left eye,’’ said Tori, 48.
Two days later, the retina of his left eye detached.
“That’s not something you want to have happen, and I was scheduled for surgery immediately,’’ Tori said. “But six weeks later the retina in the same eye detached again, and I lost my vision in it completely.’’
Problems can cascade, and in the months that followed, Tori lost his job at Delta Waterfowl in a leadership change. Then, 11 months later, the retina of his right eye tore.
“I was in the Twin Cities when it happened, and got to a surgeon right away,’’ Tori said. “He operated on my eye and saved it.’’
Tori was completely blind for two weeks following surgery. Slowly his sight returned. But so did the pain that accompanied the tear. He had built a small house outside of Bismarck, amid the prairies he loved. But he sold it to be nearer to his family in the Twin Cities and to focus on his freelance outdoors writing career.
“When I lost that eye, it was the end of my hunting,’’ Tori said. “The doctors said I couldn’t risk jarring my remaining eye by firing a shotgun or rifle.’’
He could still fish, however. He particularly loved fly fishing, and often wrote about the sport for the Star Tribune, for the late Tom Helgeson, publisher of a fly fishing magazine, and for other periodicals.
His writings also spanned other outdoors topics, drawing for reference not only on his years in Minnesota and North Dakota but also, before moving to Bismarck, on his time in South Dakota, where for five years he was the outdoors writer at the Aberdeen American News.
“I didn’t make a lot of money,’’ he said. “But it was a great place to work, learn and live. The job required 60 hours but paid 40. That wasn’t the best deal for me, but I got to write about hunting, fishing, conservation and farming. I only made $9.75 an hour — but it was a great experience.’’
In the last five years, living in the Twin Cities, Tori stabilized his freelance writing income at a modest but workable level, while learning to live with one eye. Editors respected him and liked his work and credit especially his deft touch as an essayist whose writings not only acutely reflect Minnesotans’ outdoors experiences but illuminate them through detail and insight.
Yet regarding his health, he hasn’t caught a break.
In the last six months, the pain in Tori’s remaining eye has grown intense. Doctors limit him to 15 minutes of screen time daily, and he has been unable to work. Losing the eye, his doctors say, is a real possibility, and Tori will learn this week whether a cornea transplant or other surgery is necessary.
No longer able to afford health insurance, Tori is eligible for treatment at VA hospitals. But problems with his eyes often require immediate and highly specialized treatment by private physicians. To pay his medical bills, he has depleted his savings, including the small amount he had stashed for retirement.
A proud Irishman, Tori nonetheless in recent months has accepted help from his church with his rent and utilities, and his parents have been very supportive, financially and emotionally.
Through it all, he tries to keep upbeat.
“There have been blessings in my life because of my condition,’’ he said. “I’ve met a lot of good people, and I’ve grown in my ability to appreciate them.’’
In 2014, Tori traveled with others in his church on a mission to Africa, where he met a young girl he sponsors. “That changed me a lot,’’ he said. “It showed me a person can make a difference. Perhaps you can’t change the world. But you can change someone’s world.’’
Tori didn’t tell me of his worsening condition. Nor did he tell others in the media. Instead, a friend of his sent me a note recently saying he had started a Go Fund Me campaign to help pay Tori’s medical bills, and to ensure he gets the help he needs.
The link to the site is here.
“Hopefully, someday my eye will clear up,’’ Tori said, “and I can get back to work.’’