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Wally’s Vision Loss Story: Adapting to Blindness

An interview with Wally — former client, Vision Loss Resources board member and ambassador — who totally lost his vision quite suddenly at age 34 in a violent car accident. Coping with this sudden and irreversible loss was traumatic, to say the least. But he remembers vividly, to the minute, the day he first walked into Vision Loss Resources and how it would change his life.

(Transcript) 

Interviewer:  I just want to know when you first found out that you were losing your vision?

Wally:  I lost my vision quite suddenly. It was in an automobile accident, and I can tell you the crash occurred at around 1:00 on March 30th of 1977. It’s been a while. I was knocked unconscious. I would say within a period of 12 hours, when I woke up in the hospital and I was totally blind, that’s the first indication that anyone had at the hospital, that there was a vision problem and how severe it was. Also, the next thing I know, I’m in an ambulance going to the University of Minnesota hospital where I was operated on for the first time, for the vision. Then I can tell you that Monday morning, June 13th frankly at 8:13 A.M., I walked through the doors here at Vision Loss Resources as a client.

I never knew what went on in this building, and I had driven through this intersection many, many times. I never knew what went on in the building on the North West corner of Franklin Annandale, and I was about to find out.

Interviewer:  How old were when this happened?

Wally:  I was 2 weeks short of my 35th birthday.

Interviewer:  Oh wow, so young.

Wally:  Yeah.

Interviewer:  Were you married when this happened?

Wally:  Yes, I was married. I had a five‑month‑old daughter, Katie. For Katie, she’s never known her dad to be anything other than blind, all that kind of, yeah. For me, I’ve seen her grow up in a different way, from a different perspective, that kind of thing. She’s married now. In fact, I have an 18‑month‑old granddaughter that I’ll be seeing later this afternoon, who runs circles around grandpa because she’s got grandpa wrapped around her finger.

Interviewer:  [laughs]

Wally:  It’s a lot of fun.

Interviewer:  What about as a profession, what were you doing at that time?

Wally:  I was an outside salesman in the microfilm industry, very visually‑oriented technology. After I left here, 10 days later I was back at work. Because, while I was at the University of Minnesota Hospital and my boss had come over and said, “Don’t worry about a job. Just get well.” I went back to work and stayed in the microfilm industry. Even though it was very visually‑oriented technology, I just chose to return to it and not walk away from what I had built up.

Then in July 1st of ’78, I started my own company. I called my company, “House of Micrographics.” I was working on in my home, by myself. [laughs]

Interviewer:  Was that easier to do for you at that time than going into an office and being in that world?

Wally:  Yeah, in the beginning, kind of sidestepping immobility, which allowed me to get my company off the ground. Now, I still had to go out and see customers from time to time. I’d take a bus or a cab, something like that. One of my brothers came to work with me, and it helped with the mobility issue and things like that. I wound up getting my own dealerships. I had worked for GAF prior…I became their rep in Minnesota. And so, we built the company, used the office in my home. Then we officed, got out of the house, and built the company. We were doing $600,000 worth of business.

Obviously, as microfilm as a technology declined, I wound up retiring. I’ve started to do things that allow me to give back to other people for all of the things that I’ve gotten from Vision Loss Resources and others.

Interviewer:  I know it was a long time ago, but go back to that first moment when you found out that you had lost your vision, what were some of the things that you can remember that were going through your mind?

Wally:  I can tell you when that neurosurgeon said to me across the table in the exit interview at the University of Minnesota, “Wally, you’re blind. The sooner you’re willing to accept that, the better off you’re going to be. Otherwise you’re going to waste your time and all the time of all the people around you.” I wasn’t ready for that. My initial reaction was, “No, doc, you’re wrong. You’re wrong.” The idea of what was the reason for my blindness, the optic nerve no longer functions, and that it was total, and that it was permanent, took me awhile to understand that. The period of time between my leaving the hospital and the coming down here for rehab was only about six weeks, gave me a little bit of an opportunity to try and grasp what had happened to me, to try and understand how dramatic the change was, and that it was going to be a lifelong situation.

Then after awhile, I could come down here, and you learn some new techniques at doing things, learn how to get around so you’re back working. Then you start to have a lot more confidence in where you’re going. You start to, in a sense, heal yourself, get back to being a whole person and getting back to being “normal.”

[jokingly] In fact, I’ve never been normal, even when I could see.

Interviewer:  [laughs]  Who’s normal?

Wally:  [jokingly] Yeah, who’s normal? What the heck. Everybody’s different. It took me awhile to understand that, to examine myself as to how do you adjust to loss? How do you accept change? I must say that I didn’t score too highly. [laughs] It took me awhile.

Interviewer:  Of course. I’m sure it would.

Wally:  First year, maybe even the first two years, I was either real high or real low. When I was depressed, I was very depressed, and I wasn’t a fun person to be around. And when I was high, the world was at my fingertips, and so my goal at that point…As soon as I started to realize what was going on, one of my goals was to try as much as possible to get rid of the depression, the downs. First, to elevate the level of the down, and then to make sure that the period of time between those lengthens. In order to do that, I really kept as busy as I could. I didn’t allow myself to think about the bad things. All of a sudden, you’re starting to say, “Hey, the glass is half full, it’s not half empty.”

There’s no sense in continuing to beat yourself up. You’ve got to move forward. I’m like anybody else, I have some bad days, too.

Interviewer:  Being so young and having a baby, was that something you had to adjust to with your wife? Was that a period of adjustment, too?

Wally:  Yeah, and what was I going to do to make a living and stuff like that? As Katie was growing up, it took me a while to adjust to “how do I interact with Katie?” To understand that I was going to have to watch her grow up in a different way. It took me a while to understand, too, that I was the one who was physically blind, but there was blindness in my family and that was an impact on my wife as well. There was an impact on my daughter, but I think the impact there was going to be realized mostly by her when she got a little bit older.

That her dad was a little bit different than the other dads of the girls that were in her Girl Scout troupe, the kids that she went to school with. For my wife, first of all, she’s a saint.

Interviewer:  [laughs]

Wally:  One of the things that she would do from time to time would be to say, “Who gave you the right to be a spectator?”

Interviewer:  [laughs]

Wally:  “When did you get a free pass?”

Interviewer:  [laughs]

Wally:  About that time, you think that, “Hey, I don’t have to do this or that.” Or I don’t have to fulfill my responsibilities around the house. Or I’m spending too much time listening to ball games, while other things which need to be done and really should be done on a regular basis go left undone and finally fall on my wife’s shoulders because she’s much more aware of things that drop off my radar screen. But they’re always on hers, things like that. I get out of line from time to time, and she’d bring me back. Sometimes, where there was difference of opinions, [laughs] that kind of thing. She’s been the rock or the foundation, and I owe her a lot. I’m very, very lucky too with regard to a support system. I’m the oldest of nine kids.

My family has always been there. The guys I went to high school with, college with, even business competitors. I have been very lucky in that regard when I started.

Interviewer:  Are there some different things that you like even more now?

Wally:  The game of golf.

Interviewer:  The game of golf. [laughs] You play golf?

Wally:  Yes. I play golf, and I love it. To me, it’s more than just a game. It’s analogous to life. We all get up, and we go to the first tee every day, and every round is different. There are some things that occur during the course of the day that are real good, others that are not. There’s something that happens each day that says, “I have reason to get up the next day.” It also gives you an opportunity how you handle success, or failure on a shot or two.

I play in my high school alumni tournament every year. I play every week out of Braemar. There’s a league for the disabled out here at Braemar golf course in Edina. Well, I’ve played in that for four or five years now, in our foursome. We play the regulation course and just have a great time.

The other disabled guy that I play with, he’s paralyzed from the waist down. He plays off with a specially designed cart.

Interviewer:  Did you play beforehand, or was this a game that you played afterwards?

Wally:  I’d played beforehand, about a half a dozen times a year. I would get frustrated because I wasn’t Jack Nicklaus.

Interviewer:  [laughs]

Wally:  Realistic expectations, you have that kind of idea? You’re going to school on all of these things, coming down here and doing these things, the golf and all that kind of stuff. You’re going back to square one for those kinds of things. That, quite honestly, I do need to give back, give to others. I’ve gotten so much from so many people. It isn’t just the staff here. It’s other blind people, that kind of thing. Come on, hey, the world’s out there. You can’t just lower your sights. There’s a significant adjustment [laughs] that you’ve got to make, but at the same time, you have to understand that hey, let’s just take my assets.

If I’ll start with an attitude, then what are you going to do? What actions are you going to take to utilize what you’re good at, and to go out and do the things you want to do?

Interviewer:  It sounds so important, just to continue living and not be isolated.

Wally:  Frankly, you live in a sighted world, so why not be one of them? Maybe I’m crazy, I don’t know. [laughter]

Interviewer:  You’re talking to me and I don’t think so. It makes a lot of sense.

Wally:  You’re not the only one, but all of those kinds of things. I was asked one time by a fellow. He said, “I know there’s some bad things about being blind, but tell me what are the good things?” I simply said to him, “I no longer make decisions about people because of what they look like.”

Interviewer:  That’s interesting, yeah.

Wally:  You have to get to know somebody before. I wish that I had developed that capacity when I could see, because you say yes or no to somebody just by virtue of what they look like. That’s a sad commentary on society, but…

Interviewer:  Yeah, there’s truth to it, yeah.

Wally:  …it’s reality, that kind of deal. When I go back to my reunion, our class gets together for lunch every year. Do you guys look as good? You all got a full head of hair? [laughter]

Interviewer:  You’re like the same, exactly the same as you did in high school!

Wally:  36‑inch waistline… [laughter]

Wally:  …you know that kind of deal. No gray hair… [laughter]

Wally:  …you know that kind of deal. No wrinkles, you know that kind of deal.

Interviewer:  They must love having you come back. [laughs]

Wally:  Oh, yeah. I was out for dinner with some of these guys one time at one of the guys’ houses, and I said, “If I ever got my sight back, I bet you I’ll look around the room and I might be in shock.”

Interviewer:  [laughs]

Wally:  My best friend says to me, “The biggest surprise you’ve had, pal, was if you looked in the mirror.” [laughter]

Wally:  That idea. Life has not changed. I have been very lucky because I have so many good friends. They don’t find me uncomfortable to be around. I’m the same person that I was when I could see.

Interviewer:  That’s great.

Wally:  Except that I don’t see with my eyes anymore.

Interviewer:  Thank you.

 

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