Second Sight

Losing her eyesight hasn't kept a Shrewsbury mother and housewife from enjoying the people and activities she loves

Please don't walk away from Nancy Henry before the conversation is finished. Oh, she understands why it happens, but that doesn't make it any less annoying. If you're blind from birth, you turn your ear toward the sound instead of facing it. You may find it easier to just shut your eyes -- if they don't work, why keep them open to gather dust? But when you've had vision most of your life and then go suddenly blind, well, your mannerisms are still the same as a sighted person's. Such was Nancy's fate. See her in a restaurant, you'd never know she was blind, until she reaches for the salt shaker. Her appearance often fools servers, who mistakenly walk away thinking she's done ordering. "I feel like a fool talking to no one," she says. "I told my family and friends, 'Let me know when you're walking away.'"

Henry's world became dark in August 1995. She was 46. There would be no more crimson-hued sunrises, no more watching sparrows build their nests in spring, no more watching her son's soccer team play its heart out. And her sight wasn't ever coming back, not unless they invent one of those visors that Lt. Cmdr. Geordi La Forge wears on Star Trek: The Next Generation. She deals with it pretty darn well. "What I've missed most of all is seeing my kids, especially the little ones," she remarks. "The last time I saw them, they were just getting their baby teeth, and now they're 8 and 9. Not seeing them grow up is, well, tough."

The thief of her vision was a nonmalignant brain tumor, a meningioma, which had been causing gradual visual-field loss for several years. She'd already had two operations, but this time the growth was expanding and pressing on her optic nerve. The operation removed the tumor as well as her sight. "I came home totally blind," she recalls. "I couldn't make my way from the living room to the kitchen. I was depressed and frustrated and terrified how I was going to cope."

The Shrewsbury housewife had seven children -- four at home, two of them preschoolers. Her husband, Ray, worked days. If anybody needed help pronto, it was Nancy Henry. Happily, her family picked up the slack. Her sisters drove the kids to school and appointments. Someone called the St. Louis Society for the Blind and Visually Impaired, located on Manchester at Brentwood. That was a good move. Karen Skender, the society's volunteer coordinator, says, "Only about 2 percent of people who need rehabilitation services access them."

Within two days the society sent a caseworker for a home interview. It wasn't long before Sheri Keller, a life-skills specialist with the society, came knocking. Keller showed Henry how to function in the home, how to do all the little things she had once done without much thought -- cooking, cleaning, basic homemaking. Keller marked the stove and microwave so Henry could start making meals, gave her a battery-operated thingamajig that beeps when the coffee being poured nears the rim of the cup. They became friends.

But what about the world beyond the oasis of her home? Would she ever walk to the store again, take her kids to the playground?

"I had these irrational fears of leaving the house, that something was going to happen," she says. "I remember going to restaurants and wanting to get up and leave, get back home, worried that something would happen to the kids. But that didn't last very long. Once I started getting any kind of skills back, that fear let up."

Sonya Flick, an orientation and mobility trainer with the society, also came to the rescue. Flick taught Henry the art of ambulation, not only the little tricks of moving about the house but orienteering her way outdoors. Finally the day came when Flick gave Henry a white cane. She was a quick learner. Henry lights up at the memory: "The first time I walked around the block unassisted, it was the biggest high! I called everybody I knew and told them how I could go out on my own and find my way back."

But the scariest thing is traffic. Try crossing a busy intersection such as Laclede Station Road and Big Bend blindfolded, as it were; see how it feels. The average joe would probably go into the fetal position at the first sound of an approaching car. That's where Henry has to cross if she wants to get to Old Orchard with all its shops and restaurants. That's where she almost got creamed. "I still have anxiety crossing streets," she says. "I know where to line up, I know when to step out, but you're still at the mercy of drivers not paying attention."

Learning to bake a cake, finding your way to the corner and back, taking a bus to the mall -- stepping-stones to independence for the blind person, no doubt, but another huge challenge is tapping into the galaxy of information out there. Not just pertinent data such as encyclopedia entries but also the loopy, vapid and miscellaneous claptrap found in books, tabloids, radio, TV, Internet, even junk mail. The stuff people gab about at parties.

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