When Henry Malmquist first lost his sight, he went to doctor after doctor to find help. Every doctor said the same thing, that there was nothing they could do to improve his vision.
Desperate for answers, the 73-year-old traveled to the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center. There doctors told him that there was no cure for his vision loss, but that he might be able to receive help from a low-vision specialist in the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Malmquist soon met with Maria Grimes, a services coordinator with the VA's Visual Impairment Services Team (VIST). The VIST program was designed to help blind and severely visually impaired veterans adjust to vision loss. Using technology in Grimes' office, including a high-powered magnification device, Malmquist was able to see a picture of his wife for the first time since becoming severely visually impaired.
Being visually impaired can take many forms, explained Grimes. It could mean that the person has trouble reading the newspaper or writing out checks to pay the bills. Others have trouble reading pill bottles and are unable to safely dispense their own medication. For those who still have some sight remaining, there are many tools Grimes can use to improve their sight and help them adapt.
"I'm not totally blind," he explained. "I can see shapes and shadows."
Malmquist quickly discovered that with the help of new tools and technology, he would be able to adapt to a life without normal sight. He soon began learning how to use a specially adapted computer to type, send emails, and more, and is currently taking courses through the Hadley School for the Blind. He was recently nominated as the 2012 Student of the Year at Hadley, a testament to his commitment to learning and improving his life.
For Grimes, helping Malmquist discover new skills and a renewed passion for life was just part of her job.
"It's rewarding," said Grimes. "It's nice to see the change that occurs in people. Henry is just one example of thousands across the country, and how blind rehab changes people's lives."
Grimes evaluates every blind or visually-impaired veteran individually, assessing their current vision level and how they are adapting to vision loss.
"I might send the patient to my low vision optometrist, who might prescribe reading devices like stronger reading glasses than you can buy over the counter," she said. "I'm coordinating those sorts of things."
Veterans who are considered good candidates are referred to a 10-day blind rehabilitation program, which teaches newly-blind adults life skills such as reading and writing with magnification (when appropriate), learning to cross the street and move safely without sight, and cooking and other daily activities.
After completing the rehabilitation program, Grimes reassesses each person's needs and goals. In Malmquist's case, she thought it would be useful for him to learn how to type and use a computer, which might allow him to take educational courses and connect with others. She arranged for him to begin classes at the Hadley School for the Blind in 2007, first to take a correspondence course in typing, and later courses such as economics and history.
"A lot of people don't realize that this help is available. They end up sitting at home and losing their independence. Our goal is to help them get back to their prior level of independence. If you have someone motivated, like Henry, it's really easy. He really took advantage of everything that the program had to offer."
Courses at the Hadley School for the Blind are offered at no cost to blind and visually-impaired students. The VA supplied the computer and technology needed for Malmquist to take courses, as well as tools such as a white cane and magnifying devices.
"The VA has provided me with everything," said Malmquist, noting that he has received a high-power magnifying device called a CCTV, and a computer that reads text aloud and also greatly magnifies the screen. These tools allow him to adapt to life with limited sight.
"If you were trying to build something with all of the wrong tools, you would be incredibly frustrated," added Grimes. "By providing veterans with the right tools, they can accomplish what they want to without the frustration. It's all about making life easier. For older adults losing their vision, the hard part is convincing them to take advantage of everything the VA has to offer."
VIST is one of many programs offered for veterans through the VA, she noted. The Wilkes-Barre VIST program currently covers 19 counties in Pennsylvania and New York, including Carbon County.
For more information about the Department of Veteran Affair's VIST program, or if you are a veteran who would like to know if you are qualified for VIST services, contact the VA at (877) 928-262, extension 7464. Information is also available online at http://www.wilkes-barre.va.gov/services/VIST.asp.