In the Trenches: Life on the Road with a VRT
Chapter 26 from the book entitled, “Out of the Whirlpool, A Memoir of Remorse and Reconciliation.” Copyright © 2013 by Sue Wiygul Martin
Two Clients, One Goal
I made my way up the snowy path and knocked on George’s door for the first time. He was a quiet reserved man in his mid-eighties. He lived in an old farmhouse on a large farm in Dexter.
George led me through his kitchen and dining room into his living room. He had a hard time hearing me speak. After a couple of false starts, I was able to get the tone and volume of my voice just right and we began our visit. Included in the referral information was a notation that George was having trouble identifying his medicines, one of which was for his heart condition. When I asked he recited each medication, told me how he identified it, what it was for and when he took it. A little confused by his adeptness at what was supposed to be a difficult task, I asked George to do that again. Again, in his quiet way, he gave me all of the particulars on his medicines. So out the window went the plans I had made for George’s first lesson.
I sat back and we chatted for a little while, I felt like a bull in a china shop with George speaking in his reserved manner and me having to bellow back at him so that he could hear me. In the course of our conversation, I noted several tasks around the house which could be made accessible. I showed him large print materials such as a calendar and address book, gave him a pad of bold lined paper and some bold markers, and asked if he would like a large print check register. He declined all of these at first saying very quietly that he supposed he could get along. After a little contemplation, George allowed that some of these items might be helpful but turned down the check register saying he didn’t write checks. He told me he knew how much money he had, where it was supposed to go, and therefore had no need to write a check.
As I began to know George better and gained an understanding of what he wanted to be able to do around the house, our work together proceeded. I marked his appliances and thermostat and he allowed that this, too, might be helpful. Explaining that he could have operator assisted telephoning at no charge brought about the same reaction. I was beginning to wonder what, if anything, would really interest George.
I reached into the car for my bag. Throwing it over my shoulder I walked up the sidewalk and knocked on the door. “Hello, my name is Sue Martin,” I began. “Ah, great,” replied Gordon. “Please, come in. This is my wife, Christine. I’ve been waiting for your help for several months. Come on in and let’s get started.”
Coming to work with Gordon was an adventure. I never knew what to expect when I walked in the door. He’d always have a project. One month we’d work on his genealogy program. The next month saw us creating a letterhead which he could use for stationery in his snail mail correspondence. Then we’d be off and running to find a stock quote web site which would work properly with his screen reader.
Each new thing we discovered delighted Gordon and he was never stingy in showing his delight. When people ask me to tell them some of the greatest stories of my work I always tell the story of when Gordon received his first email from a family member. I don’t recall, at the moment, who sent that first one but it absolutely thrilled Gordon.
The other great moment was when I placed Gordon’s large keyboard before him. It was an Intellitools keyboard. These keyboards come with standard overlays which can be inserted. You can also create custom overlays. This is what my assistant, Cindy, and I did for Gordon. We used vibrant colors of high contrast to create the overlay. I started to explain the overlay but quickly realized there was no need. With a spreading smile Gordon just began to type away.
I settled in my usual chair at George’s. I asked him if he had liked to read when he could see and he told me that he did a fair amount of reading. I told him about talking books. He politely thanked me and declined. He said that his only real interest was in gardening and selling his vegetables. Aha, I thought. Now we were getting somewhere. Here was something in which George showed some real interest. I told him that was great and I could help him figure out a way to still have his garden come spring. He simply said no, he didn’t think that would be possible. I put the gardening on the back burner until springtime and went on to low vision.
George’s macular degeneration was pretty advanced and he had a hard time seeing even the largest size practice materials. He brought home a tiny, very strong hand held magnifier from his low vision exam. It was a real struggle for him to use this magnifier but then I’ve seldom met anyone as determined as George. One morning when I arrived at his house he announced that he had read the obituaries with his magnifier. I was astounded. I knew that with his level of visual functioning, this was an accomplishment of great perseverance and patience. I had George try to use the magnifier to read directions on all sorts of things in the kitchen. He could read a few things, if the print was large and of good contrast. Unfortunately, some food items have their directions in yellow on a clear background or blue on black. The magnifier just wouldn’t do in all of these situations, so I brought George a Vox Com. George or a helper could record a message on the magnetic strip of a small card. It might be the name of a spice or a reminder of the ratio of water to rice and how long to cook them. A rubber band kept the recording with the container, ready to play back in the small Voxcom gadget.
Aside from gardening, and it was still midwinter, it was with the Vox Com that I saw the first bit of emotion from George. He thought that device was so slick. We recorded a bunch of labels and directions for various items around the kitchen and George said that his daughters would help him with the rest of the labeling. The next time I came to see George he had prepared gingerbread for me using the recorded directions on a Vox Com card.
Wondering what awaited me I opened the door into Gordon and Christine’s kitchen and called a greeting. Once we were settled in the living room, where Gordon kept his computer, I had a surprise. Instead of having a task or project in mind Gordon, for the first time, asked me what kinds of things I taught to my other clients. A couple of months earlier I had worked with a woman in Rockland who was a minister. She needed access to the Bible. I had several versions of the Bible on CD but they needed to be broken down into books and labeled properly so that they could be easily retrieved. This turned out to be a monumental task. I related the story of my labors with the Bible to Gordon and he immediately declared that he wanted a copy too.
I copied the disks containing the Bible to Gordon’s computer and we were off and running. Gordon would recall a snippet of a passage or a certain story from the Old Testament and we’d go look it up and read it. Then Gordon would recite some poem or other which he had learned in Sunday School. His memory for these rhymes was prodigious and he kept us entertained for hours.
One of the more memorable projects I worked on with Gordon involved his quest for knowledge and understanding of classical music. Gordon wanted to play music CD’s on his computer while pausing and moving around amongst the tracks. I explained to him the keystroke for pausing is CTRL+p. During a morning session, shortly after he had taken his diuretic he sat straight up, held one finger in the air, and with a big grin, announced to the world, “It’s control pee time!”
As the snow began to melt, I pondered George’s situation. Although George remained quiet and reserved, I had seen a couple of glimpses of his humor and pride—like when he brought out the gingerbread he had made. I asked him about gardening again. Again, he politely told me that he didn’t think he’d have a garden this year. I asked what he would be doing now if he were going to have a garden. He told me he would be reading seed catalogs, ordering his seeds, and starting seedlings in his basement or a greenhouse. On my next visit, I brought George a loaner closed circuit television to see if it would work for him. I showed him all the functions of the machine and left.
When I returned in two weeks, George was transformed. He was reading absolutely everything with the CCTV. His life was coming back to life. He had ordered his seeds from the catalog and asked me if I could teach him to hammer nails so that he could build his greenhouse. By the next visit, George had his seedlings started in his greenhouse and was getting his tractor ready to cultivate his garden. George was off and running.
We ordered George his own closed circuit television. After I delivered it in late June, I didn’t see George until early August. He led me into the dining room where he kept his CCTV and told me to wait. He disappeared into the kitchen and when he returned he presented me with five perfect cucumbers. He then patted the CCTV affectionately and said, “Your program has made my life worth living again”.
Ecce quam bonum, see that which is good. So says the seal of the University of the South, my alma mater. I’ve never known anyone who embodied that sentiment more than Gordon. Gordon was able to see the good in everything. While I might have been the teacher, there is no doubt that I learned as much from Gordon as he learned from me. When his family called to tell me of Gordon’s death I had powerful mixed emotions. I began to cry. But I also began to smile. Gordon will live on in my vivid remembrance of the time that we spent together.
* * * * *
In graduate school I had been sorely disappointed upon learning that I would be working primarily with seniors, many of them with other disabilities in addition to blindness. Working with George and Gordon was not only a humbling education in my chosen field, it was also a transformative experience for me as a teacher and as a human being. Who was I to dismiss someone, anyone, just because of age or disability. My life and attitudes were now becoming a tapestry full of texture and rich hues. I realized that I deeply wanted my clients, many in their seventies and eighties, to experience the balance of their lives in the fullness they so richly deserved. Teaching them the skills and providing them with the tools to do this was enormously rewarding.