Through different eyes
LINDA KOEHLER/TIMES NEWS Helen Koshensky, who lost sight 10 years ago, welcomes a visitor to her Saylorsburg home.
Helen Koshensky, 69, opens her door to her home in Saylorsburg and greets her visitor with hospitality. She leads the way to the kitchen table and offers the guest tea or coffee.
So far, no one would know she was blind.
Helen was a sighted person up until 10 years ago. In 1999 she was diagnosed with Lupus. She had a severe reaction to two of her medications and almost died. She lost all her hair and her skin literally fell off.
"I was hospitalized and put in the burn unit. While I was there, my cornea in both eyes were damaged, as if burned. Then I got staph in both eyes. I went from seeing one day to being blind the next day. I was told I would recover my sight," she says.
She had 15 eye surgeries and corneal implants. She even went through chemo therapy for six months.
Nothing helped. She was now totally blind.
"At this point, I stopped the crying," she says.
That's because all her life, Helen has been a "doer." She has never been passive about living.
Born and raised in Jersey City, New Jersey, she graduated from high school in 1958 and married her high school sweetheart. They had three sons, Michael, Mark and David. She worked in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York until the family moved to Keansburg, NJ.
"I was always motivated and took college courses here and there. After my divorce, I went to nursing school. When I graduated, I bought a car and a home and started my new life," she says.
After she earned her RN she was hired as a director of nursing at a 113-bed skilled nursing facility and loved her job.
She met her second husband, Bruce and they moved to Forks Township in Easton and she went to work for a nursing agency.
"I loved it," she says.
A couple years later they purchased a home in Effort and Helen went back to school, this time earning her BSN at East Stroudsburg University. She began a job with the Lehigh Valley Hospice and Home Care in 1998, loving her role in helping ease people's pain. She had just enrolled in the Master's program at ESU when she was diagnosed with Lupus.
Helen's life was forever changed followed by her hospitalization and her resulting blindness.
"I realized I could die or do something. I had life in me. I've always been proactive. So I reached out to other blind people."
First she made contact with VIABL (Visual Impairment and Blindness Services), a nonprofit agency and a member of the Pennsylvania Association for the Blind.
The organization helps blind or visually impaired residents of Monroe and Northampton Counties to lead well-adjusted, rewarding and productive lives by providing services and programs designed to prevent, prepare for and manage vision loss. It believes that people who have been affected by a loss of vision should be able to continue enjoying activities and retain their independence.
And that's just what this active mother and grandmother wanted.
Through working with VIABL, she became instrumental in forming the Monroe County Council of the Blind of which to this day, she is still the vice president.
"We're an advocacy group. We worked with PennDOT to get the audible pedestrian signals in Stroudsburg. Our national organization, The American Council of the Blind, has been successful in getting it passed that our currency will have something raised on it so blind people can determine what currency it is. Now we're working on getting it passed that electric cars will have some kind of signal go off when they start or stop," Helen says.
"I have never been one to sit around and feel sorry for myself," she says. "I accepted my blindness and wanted to still find a way to give back.
She proves that every day of her life.
Three years ago she visited the Western Pocono Lions Club booth at the West End Fair, learning all about the organization. She was so impressed with what she learned, she decided to join. But after she attended a few meetings, she realized they just didn't know what to do with a blind person in their midst. She kept going, eventually earning their respect, moving up the chain of command from 2nd vice president to 1st vice president to now serving as the president since July.
"It has made me feel on top of the world," she says of the honor bestowed upon her. "I'm humbled that they respect me and consider me highly enough to elect me as their president. I am teaching them life's lessons when I walk among them."
Thanks to her voice-activated computer, she does 75 percent of her club and volunteer work from it. She can access her calendar, address book and phone numbers.
"I'm a very organized person. I like to know exactly where everything is."
Her clothes closet also reflects that organization. Her slacks are lined in order of their color. Her shirts and blouses are separated into long sleeve and short sleeves. She has pins in the ones that are considered her "best" tops.
Her shoes are placed in specific spots so she knows which pair is which when she reaches for them on her closet floor.
VIABL came into her basement apartment in her son's home and placed raised dots on her washer and dryer so she can do her own laundry. They placed them on her stove so she can cook and bake. She cleans her own hardwood floors and says she can do a better job on her hands and knees.
All of this helps Helen to continue to be independent and not totally reliant on others. In one case where she is reliant upon someone else is in driving.
"I have those I can hire to drive if I have to. I have a list of friends I can call when I need to get around to do my errands and appointments."
An average day for her begins between 5-5:30 a.m. when she listens to Chuck and Joanne on the radio. For company, she has her cat, Buddy and her son's dog, Jack and his cat, Manny. She has her breakfast and does her housework before she heads to her computer.
She breaks for lunch, rests and around 3 p.m. is back at the computer. She prepares her dinner and then reads, thanks to audio books. Her favorite books are historical fiction. John Jakes is her favorite author and the Civil War is her favorite subject.
I like to read books where I can learn something.
"I've addressed all my needs. I'm able to do all my jobs well. I am totally fulfilled."
Staying busy helps with that.
In addition to her housework, Club and volunteer work, she attends four mandatory meetings a month and attends every workshop, seminar, forum, fair and convention on behalf of her clubs. She does teleconferencing when it becomes necessary to get people together at one time between meetings.
Recently she has been focused on the Lions Club's White Cane campaign. Each year Oct. 15 is designated as National White Cane Safety Day.
"We're trying to get the word out about how important it is to help the blind and visually impaired become as independent as possible."
She's also working with the Monroe County Council of the Blind fundraising efforts for the PA State Council of the Blind
"I don't focus on the negatives in life. I'm blind, but I'm not helpless. Instead I focus on the positives in my life."
That's why whenever she sends an email to anyone, it will include a positive quote/message that she changes periodically. Currently her message is "God Himself doesn't propose to judge a man until he is dead. So why should you?"
Helen's family and faith are a big part of her life.
I've accepted that I'm blind. But I live my life as an independent person and I know God is always watching over me.