Life-Changing Experiences Autumn 2006 (12/1/2006) 
   BVA Bulletin Autumn 2006 Life-Changing Experiences in Blind Rehab

Life-Changing Experiences

 

Rehabilitation Programs Gave Me Independence

by Sam Huhn

Back in June I had the opportunity to tour the Philadelphia VA Medical Center Eye Clinic. Although I am a regular patient at the clinic, I participated in the tour in order to learn about new practices that are being implemented there, as well as at other eye clinics around the country. I was also able to share my enthusiasm and appreciation with the staff and others for the excellent care that the VA eye doctors have provided to blinded veterans like me.

Since being diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) in the early 1960s, I have sought care from some of the best eye physicians in the world. I participated in a five-year research treatment program for RP at Harvard University and the Eye and Ear Hospital of Boston, Massachusetts. I have also been under the care of eye physicians at the Scheie Eye Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, also located in Philadelphia.

Through some of the contacts at the Scheie Eye Institute, I met a gentleman named G.W. Stilwell in the early 1990s. He coordinates care for blinded and low vision veterans at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center. G.W. informed me about a program at a VA Blind Rehabilitation Center located in West Haven, Connecticut, and arranged for me to spend 12 weeks there in 1992. The rehab program taught me how to live a full and independent life, despite my vision-limiting condition.

Ever since my experience at the rehabilitation center, I have been under the expert care of the VA eye doctors in Philadelphia. They have provided me with a number of low-vision devices that help me in my daily living, which includes my important volunteer work to which I refer later.

I was also able to take a Computer Access Training course in 1998. The course enabled me to gain even more independence. Recently, the doctors at the eye clinic suggested that I schedule myself to undergo a newly developed laser procedure in which a tiny hold in the intraocular lens of my right eye will be cut to reduce some of the cloudiness and blurriness that I experience.

During my years of care, I have learned a lot about the Philadelphia Eye Clinic. The clinic is led by Dr. Michael Sulewski. Dr. Sulewski is also the head of the Ophthalmology Department at the University of Pennsylvania’s Scheie Eye Institute. He has worked hard in recent years to secure funding and other resources for the medical center. His hard work has paid off recently as the Eye Clinic is very close to opening a new wing devoted to eye care.

Because of Dr. Sulewski’s connection with the University of Pennsylvania, the Eye Clinic also has access to residents who are trained on cutting-edge procedures and equipment of the highest quality that the field has to offer. This allows the veterans under their care to receive life-changing vision treatments before most people in the general public have even heard about them.

No one ever wants to be diagnosed with a blindness-causing disease. I was certainly devastated when I learned of my condition. I am nevertheless pleased to acknowledge that, thanks to the support I have received from the Eye Clinic and other blinded veterans, I am living an independent life. 
I have devoted much of my life to volunteer service.

Opportunities to serve others have brought me deep satisfaction. I am strongly committed to the importance of encouraging other blinded veterans to seek out the many resources that VA offers them. As people who have served our country well, they deserve to find out about and receive the care they deserve.

Through the cutting-edge care and rehabilitation services available to blinded veterans in Philadelphia and all across the country, many more veterans will learn how to “boogie around” like I do. Most important, they will become more independent and empowered to serve and lift their fellow veterans.

 

Why Enroll in a Blind Rehab Center

By Kelly J.R. Dunn

Simply put: Blind Rehabilitation Improves Quality of Life.

“Why should I go to training? I’m not totally blind. I’m doing just fine. I just need a magnifier and new glasses. I don’t want to take a spot from someone who really needs to go.”

As a VIST Coordinator, I am always amazed at how often I hear statements like those. For you who have been to a VA Blind Rehab Center for training, you know the value of the training you received. For those of you who still have not experienced such training, let’s look at some of the hard facts:

  • Once people with vision loss learn orientation and mobility skills from a certified instructor, they are less likely to fall and suffer broken bones or fractures, thus preventing the need for physical rehabilitation and possible nursing home care.
  • Blind rehabilitation specialists teach adaptive skills so that individuals can maintain a level of independence in the areas of cooking, managing money and finances, traveling safely, reading the newspaper, managing medications, and other daily activities.
  • There are numerous optical and blind aids that you may not know about and which cannot be fully addressed by your local VA. At blind centers, trainees, receive personalized evaluations for appropriate aids to assist them. They also obtain direct, one-on-one training on how to use the devices. In many cases they are provided with the devices to take home or to be delivered to their home.
  • There are “tricks of the trade” for doing things with a vision loss that are taught at blind centers. These can relieve blinded veterans of frustrations when trying to complete daily tasks.
  • After receiving blind rehabilitation, those with impaired vision are also less likely to suffer from health problems associated with an inactive lifestyle.

“As a recent graduate of the Eastern Blind Rehabilitation Center (December 2005), I heartily concur with the above statements,” said Jeff Clark, VIST volunteer and patient. “I would add that the important, albeit less tangible, benefit is the camaraderie with fellow vets, all of whom have similar visual impairments, which gave me a valuable new perspective on my disability and made my ‘quality of life’ vastly better than before.”

Editor’s Note: In addition to his service to blinded veterans as Director of District 3, Sam Huhn has been a volunteer National Service Officer since 1992. Kelly Dunn is a licensed social worker and a VIST Coordinator with the VA Boston Healthcare System in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.

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 Veterans Stories: Lonnie Bedwell (8/17/2015) 
   

Lonnie's Story

Kayaker Goes Solo Down Grand CanyonLonnie Bedwell


Lonnie Bedwell, a Navy veteran from the Indiana Regional Group, made history last August 21 by becoming the first totally blind kayaker ever to navigate the entire length of the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River.

Lonnie was guided by three other veterans from Team River Runner, who provided him with only voice commands during the 16-day, 226-mile journey. In addition to his record-breaking feat, Lonnie fulfilled a dream he has long shared with Team River Runner Executive Director Joe Mornini. Quoted in a news release published days after the trip, Lonnie described the feelings that accompanied the achievement.

“Running the Grand Canyon was a dream for Joe and me, and now that dream has become a reality,” the quote stated. “I hope that other disabled persons will be able to share this feeling with me one day and achieve their dreams as well.”

Lonnie started kayaking only some four years ago after attending a Team River Runner event during which he learned the basics of kayaking.


 Veterans Stories: Bill Wedekind (8/17/2015) 
   

Bill's Story

 

Bill Wedekind, Vietnam War veteran and the only known blind, bilateral double-hand amputee potter in the world, addressed the Blinded Veterans Association (BVA) 69th National Convention’s Father Carroll Memorial Luncheon on Wednesday, August 20, 2014.

Bill Wedekind

A life member of BVA and current resident of San Antonio, Texas, Wedekind was born in Manhattan, Kansas, as the first of five brothers. He was inspired to follow the family tradition and join the U.S. Marine Corps in 1967, expecting it to be a lifelong career path. On May 25, 1968, his life permanently changed course when he was sent to inspect a defensive perimeter while serving in Vietnam. Never arriving at a certainty or remembrance as to what happened next, Wedekind nevertheless lost both eyes, one ear, and both hands in the explosion.

Wedekind’s grandmother, Myrtle Fichon, suggested pottery as a possible career for him and introduced him to the basics of the craft before he studied under accomplished potters at Kansas State University. He later received an advanced degree license as a ham radio operator and took up the building of race cars as a hobby. He also fearlessly uses power tools whenever he needs to build another shelf to hold his pottery. He has given pottery demonstrations and motivational speeches to a wide array of groups, including students of all ages, a minister’s group, inmates at correctional facilities, and potters at numerous shows, guilds, and seminars.


In 1976, the Disabled American Veterans honored Wedekind as the Arkansas Disabled Vet of the Year. He was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star with Combat V in 1968. Wedekind’s address was one of several highlights of the BVA convention, which occurred August 18-21. Some 150 blinded veterans and an additional 250 families, exhibitors, presenters, and friends of BVA participated in the four-day gathering.


The Father Carroll Luncheon event itself is named for Thomas J. Carroll, one of the blind rehabilitation field’s foremost pioneers of the 20th century and BVA’s National Chaplain from 1946 to 1971.


 Veterans Stories: Jim Hogan (8/17/2015) 
   

Jim's Story

 

Jim Hogan and AtticusJames Hogan, a longtime member of the Southern California Regional Group of the Blinded Veterans Association (BVA) and a volunteer with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System for the past 12 years, has been recognized as VA’s National Male Volunteer of the Year.

The official award presentation will occur during the 69th Annual VA Voluntary Service National Advisory Committee Meeting and Conference held April 22-24, 2015 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

James Hogan, a resident of Canyon Country, California, has logged more than 2,800 hours of voluntary service during his tenure. He is one of 260 BVA volunteers nationwide performing 34,177 hours of service during BVA’s Fiscal Year 2014 (July 1, 2013-June 30, 2014).

James’ dedicated service has also involved his wife, Pam, who volunteers with him. In addition, his guide dog of nine years, Atticus, has worked as a therapy dog for VA Healthcare System patients.

James performs a multitude of volunteer tasks as a VA volunteer, serving blind and visually impaired veterans who are enrolled in the Visual Impairment Service Team (VIST) program. As such, he helps veterans attend fishing trips by arranging transportation and for them. He also helps organize monthly VIST Support Group activities. One of his specialties is also outreach to younger Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and their families regarding benefits, adjustment to disability, and educational opportunities. He also actively serves his fellow blinded veterans within his BVA regional group.

James visits regularly with veterans at the Sepulveda VA Community Living Center and Hospice and mobilizes the local Disabled American Veterans chapter to bring food goodies and cheer to hospitalized patients. Accompanied by Pam and Atticus, he visits veterans at the California State Veterans Homes in the Cities of Lancaster, Ventura, Barstow, and West Los Angeles.

James, Pam, and Atticus work with Vietnam Veterans of America on their annual Homeless Stand Downs in Ventura and Antelope Valley, California. They help the Elks raise funds for their annual veterans’ luncheon at their lodge and drive Boy Scouts to place more than 6,000 flags on veterans’ graves on Memorial Day.

A veteran of the U.S. Navy, James Hogan was diagnosed with hearing loss as a young boy and quickly began utilizing hearing devices. Determined to fulfill his dream of serving his country, he enlisted in the Navy following graduation from high school in 1966. After serving 4½ years in Vietnam combat areas, he re-entered civilian life in 1973. Ten years later, he was diagnosed with Ushers II, a degenerative disease that causes both vision and hearing loss.

Despite his setbacks, James has worked relentlessly to maintain his active lifestyle. He, Pam, and Atticus are often seen riding through town on a Lightfoot Duo Recumbent Cycle, a side-by-side, two-seat quadracycle they obtained after a refresher course James took at the Palo Alto VA Blind Rehabilitation Center in 2012. He has also been an avid spokesman on behalf of those with hearing loss for the HearStrong Foundation. Last year he was proclaimed as a HearStrong champion by the organization.

 Veterans Stories: Dan Wallace (5/31/2016) 
   Blinded Veterans Association BVA Dan Wallace's Story

Dan's Story

Danny Wallace

A look at one man’s story may inspire many people, veterans or not, to help others overcome difficulties such as blindness. Consider the case of First Sergeant Danny Wallace (Ret.). He enlisted in the Army as an infantryman, completing one-stop training that included basic airborne school at Fort Benning, Georgia.

He served for a total of 20 years as a rifleman, radio transmitter operator, team leader, squad leader, ranger instructor, platoon sergeant, company executive officer, and company first sergeant. During a tour in Iraq, Wallace’s life changed forever. Two weeks before Christmas, a car bomb attack in Tal Afar left him totally blind. After multiple surgeries—to attach both retinas, replace the cornea in his right eye, and stitch severe wounds to his face and neck—he was still blind in one eye but had limited vision in the other.

Wallace remained on active duty for two years after his injury. Upon retiring, he struggled with the transition to civilian life. “I felt distant and unwilling to participate in any veterans organization,” he recalled.

Finding Help


This isolation lasted about eight years. Then, he attended the Central Blind Rehabilitation Center at Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital just outside Chicago. There, he found out about the Blinded Veterans Association. Soon after that, BVA invited him to participate in its Operation Peer Support initiative, which connects combat-blinded veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam with the newly blinded who have been wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan. Operation Peer Support activities also provide informational seminars that touch on topics such as education, rehabilitation through sports and recreation, technology, and career development.

It helped Wallace rediscover purpose in his life and the experience had a ripple effect as he now serves as a BVA peer mentor for newly blinded veterans such as Mark Wilson, who lost his sight as a result of a gunshot wound to his face. Wilson’s mother says that meeting Wallace through BVA has literally “transformed” her son.

Over the past two years, Wallace’s eyesight has begun to decline even further. Nevertheless, he remains driven to serve. And he is once again a Sergeant, this time for BVA. “Early in 2014, I had the privilege to be selected as the Sergeant-at-Arms for the Blinded Veterans Association,” he explained. “Words cannot express how grateful I am. Now it is my turn to help other veterans feel that they belong as well.”


 Veterans Stories: Travis Fugate (8/14/2015) 
   

Travis' Story

 

Travis Fugate

Travis is one of the many blinded veterans BVA has been helping since his devastating injury when he was hit in the face with an IED, while on a routine mission south of Baghdad in 2005. He still had some remaining vision one eye. According to Travis, “I could still see colors, shapes, large print and shadows. I could see which girls were pretty and which ones weren’t.”


He had enrolled in classes at community college in his home state of Kentucky, and he was active with many disabled sporting events and programs. He also had the chance to meet other injured Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans at BVA’s national convention in August 2007, and the experience left an imprint on him.

 

Travis was also among the blinded veterans who came to BVA headquarters in Washington, DC in November 2008. Travis was deeply honored by the gesture and all the Veterans Day events he attended in Washington.  He returned home to Kentucky in great spirits, inspired by his visit to BVA and by the national outpouring of support for veterans like him.


Unfortunately, later that year he developed a frontal sinus infection above his left eye. His sinus symptoms worsened, and he reported his vision was getting worse, too.  At some point, Travis lost all remaining vision in his left eye, leaving this young former soldier completely blind in both eyes.

In January of 2009, Travis called Blinded Veterans Association and told us what had happened with his left eye. BVA urged him to immediately fly to Walter Reed Medical Center for assessment, which, thankfully, he did. The day after admission, Travis underwent five hours of retinal surgery to correct a detached retina.


Then in February, Travis returned from two weeks at home, and had another retinal detachment that required further surgery, and in March he had more emergency retinal surgery.


Now that Travis has no vision in either eye, the first thing BVA did was help him apply for and obtain blind rehabilitation.  He went to the Hines VA Blind Center in Chicago in 2009, for a several-week-long intensive program that taught him how to do everything all over again, starting from scratch.  Every blinded veteran who has undergone blind rehabilitation has said it made a huge difference in their lives, and it did the same for Travis.


And despite all he has suffered, Travis still says that he would do it all over again – from enlisting in the Army National Guard to serving in Iraq.


 Veterans Stories: Steve Baskis (8/14/2015) 
   

Steve's Story


Steve BaskisTwenty-five-year-old Steve Baskis (PFC, US Army) survived a roadside bomb attack in Iraq. Flying shrapnel hit Steve’s head, arms and legs. A traumatic brain injury and nerve damage left him blinded. 

When he woke up at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, Steve remembers that one of the first people who visited him was a blinded veteran from BVA named Tom. Tom said he’d help Steve apply for blind rehabilitation and assist him during his recovery. Both Tom and Steve kept their promises, and their friendship.

Today, Steve has taken up mountain climbing. He says that BVA is one of the reasons he was able to find purpose and fulfillment in life again:

 “This organization has people who really care, and I am one who has benefited from their care. BVA has provided me with resources and information I would have never found on my own.”






Read about one of his climbing adventures in Steve’s own words:

The View from the Top

by Steve Baskis

 

Just last year, as many of you already know, I lost my sight in the Middle East as I served in the United States Army. At that point in my life, it was my dream to be a part of the famed Green Berets or the Army’s Special Forces. I looked forward to the challenges of the future and I thought I knew what they would be.

But, when you serve in a dangerous place, you can never lose your concentration or take your mind off of what you are doing, not for a minute or even a second. You never know what may be lurking around the corner, as was the case for me on May 13, 2008.

Now, a year and a half after the blast, I am doing very well. Nevertheless, the challenges I expected before my injuries have been of a very different nature, and it has been a long road. In the first place, I literally fought for my survival during the first couple of weeks at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Then there were white cane and other mental and emotional frustrations at the Central Blind Rehabilitation Center at Hines.

All the while, I received tremendous amounts of support from family, friends, and organizations. But that’s not all—there’s so much more. I met the greatest person alive, someone with whom I wish to spend my whole life and who has brought me light when all I see is darkness. And still I want to push ahead even more and not be satisfied with the status quo. Those who don’t already know me must know that I love life. And there is no better way to live life than to experience what the world has to offer.

I have been able to do so many things during the past year, both because I want to and because of great people. My recent trip is only the latest example.
On Friday, November 6, I left Chicago for Mexico City, but I was certainly not alone. There were many other individuals from different parts of the world making the same journey. We gathered at the Mexico City International Airport to begin an expedition that would eventually lead us to the summit of the third tallest volcano in Mexico.

Global Explorers was the organization that lead the way and directed the program, spearheaded by the famous blind climber Erik Weihenmayer and several amazing staff members who have made many trips possible for young high school and university students. Erik personally invited me along for the adventure. I can’t thank enough, both him and everyone else involved, for providing the experience.

This was something that had never been done in Mexico. There were two parties of blind individuals, one from the U.S. and one from Mexico. The group included ten blind and visually impaired individuals from all walks of life, but there were many more that assisted us. If I am not mistaken, the count totaled more than 30. Before we climbed, there was some immersion training that occurred. This took place in Amecameca, located about 90 minutes by car from Mexico City. We were shuttled out to a hotel named Hacienda Panoaya. Here we met the rest of the team to climb Iztaccíhuatl.

The Sierra Nevada is the region’s most important mountain range. The average altitude of the range is 4,000 meters above sea level. It ends with the Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl volcanoes. Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl are the second and third highest mountains in Mexico with an altitude of 5,452 and 5,284 meters, respectively. Amecameca is next to the volcanoes, located 2,419 meters above sea level. All of the rivers, streams, and springs result from the constant glacier melt in the Sierra Nevadas. Word is that Mexican ancestors worshipped the mountains, especially the Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl Peaks, which were considered gods. To give you an idea of its size, Iztaccíhuatl is taller than any mountain in the lower 48 states.

At the hotel, I met some great people: Michelle, Eric, Terry, and Eliza. These individuals made up our team. Although they were younger than I, they were all very mature and intelligent. After introductions, we set off to learn about the surrounding area. One of the main projects was to help paint a school and plant trees in a town outside Amecameca. The townspeople gathered to help paint. They also prepared a wonderful traditional Mexican lunch for us.

Two days later, on November 8, we were ready to go to base camp, which was near the bottom of the volcano. A van transported us to camp, taking about an hour and a half to get there from Amecameca.

The next morning, November 9, we climbed 75 percent of the way to “high camp” in order to acclimate ourselves. We got a true taste of the terrain that day. We felt the frozen mud beneath us right away. This gave us great traction to hike up the steep slopes. Here and there the terrain would become more sandy and rocky. Navigating through large and small gauntlets, we protected ourselves by using our trekking poles. When we hit broken up rock and sand, I knew we were in for a workout. Trying to keep our balance and footing on the steep slopes was always tricky.

After climbing along steep ridges and boulders, we finally made it to our turnaround point. Another group traveled ahead for another 30 minutes but then turned around and headed back down the volcano toward base camp.

The next day, November 10, we climbed the rest of the way to high camp, where we stayed until the following morning so we could make our attempt on the summit. This day was memorable because of the increased communication among the guides and the blind. The weather was superb with no rain or wind to hinder us. We were truly blessed with good conditions.

Again we navigated the route we had already blazed. When we reached the turnaround point we had used the day before, we kept on climbing, this time to our goal of high camp. We ditched the trekking poles in climbing the more “technical” areas. This was not easy for me with my bad arm. Those familiar with my situation know that I have poor circulation and dexterity in my left arm due to my injuries in Iraq. It was a long day of hiking and climbing but we indeed made it to high camp.

The porters had set up camp and all we had to do was move into our tents. The night was filled with a combination of chitchat and snoring. Some slept great while others didn’t catch a wink. The fact that I heard both chitchat and snoring is evidence that I did not sleep well. Although many complained of altitude sickness, I did not have the symptoms they had, which were nausea, stomach pain, and headache. I believe I slept poorly mostly because my feet were so cold.

“Summit Day” was also Veterans Day, November 11.

Everyone awoke to a chilly morning. My hands and feet were even colder after I left the tent. Because the air is thinner at a high altitude, there is less oxygen in the body, making it more difficult to breathe and do strenuous activities. I knew this before but now I was experiencing it. I also got hit with the fact that a lack of oxygen also makes one’s limbs colder.

I knew that the best thing to do was to get moving but, at the same time, I thought of going no further and making high camp my personal summit. Erik and Jeff talked me out of it. The reason I thought of stopping was that I couldn’t feel my left arm.

I did my best to hold onto the trekking pole and climb with the rest of the group. Slowly but surely the sun rose and it became warmer. We reached an area where our lead guide, Hector, set up ropes to help us climb the steep rock face.

In the distance I could hear faint shouts and screams. Some of the teams had made it to the top already! The radios carried by some would crackle, and I could hear crying and the sharing of the experience of being at the summit. It was so close now for me. There was no turning back.

My own guide, Alfredo, then led me to the top. I stood there with everyone else as the sun rose out of the clouds. It was truly an amazing daybreak on Veterans Day. Thank you for taking the time to learn of my great experience. I hope everyone will reach for their dreams and goals on every scale and at every level, as we did on this marvelous trip. Live your life to the fullest and never give up!