WEST HAVEN, Conn. — They all walk through the doors the same way on their first day, says Eastern Blind Rehab Center Chief Bernadette Kern.
“I wish I could take a video of them when they enter and when they leave,” she said. “Blindness is a great equalizer.”
Kern was speaking about the men and women, veterans of the armed forces, who have made the tough decision to seek help in managing their blindness. They hail from up and down the East Coast, a total of 13 states. Kern said the new arrivals all exhibit the same demeanor. Head down. Guarded expressions. Hesitancy to answer basic questions.
Some may be retired attorneys and some may be dockworkers but Kern said all of them share two important things in common, regardless of social, economic or racial background.
“They share blindness and a military career,” she said. “I’m telling you, there’s nothing stronger than those two bonds.”
Meet Bob Campaniel, a Korean War veteran from Long Island.
Campaniel, 78, said he began losing his sight after he turned 70. Campaniel cannot see faces due to a blind spot that affects his center of vision. Kern said he developed macular degeneration, a condition that usually affects older adults. On Tuesday, Campaniel was working with Olivia D’Angelos, a low-vision specialist. Campaniel’s condition has deteriorated to the point where he can no longer read his own mail.
D’Angelos has been helping him work with a machine that can zoom in and blow up smaller images. He places his hand underneath the scanner and it shows up on the screen, every crease, wrinkle and detail of skin now visible to him.
“This will change my life,” he said.
Campaniel remembers his first day at the center. It was May 5. The characterizations Kern provided about first-day program participants are true, he said.
“Of course, you’re apprehensive when you get in here,” he said. “But it was like when I was in the service. You get used to it. You get used to your surroundings. You meet people going through the same thing. Looking back on the service, it wasn’t so bad. Look at how it’s helping me now.”
Like a majority of the veterans who come through the center, Campaniel’s vision problems are not service-connected. Mark Matthiessen, an orientation and mobility specialist, said that fact does not matter.
“They are promised a lot of things when they agree to catch a bullet for their country,” Matthiessen said.
Matthiessen said he decided to pursue his current career following 9/11.
“Like a lot of people, I decided to reassess,” he said.
Matthiessen has been working on the sixth floor in Building 2 of West Haven’s VA campus for eight years. After exiting the elevator, it’s clear the rehab center has the unmistakable feel of a hospital building. It does not, however, have the character of a sad place. There’s a room dedicated to cooking, where blind veterans learn kitchen strategies. Bright orange dots are stuck to the dials of an electric stove, in order to gauge temperature. Another room, dubbed “the shop” where veterans practice living skills, even features a power saw. Specialist Angel Fazio showed off a cutting board one veteran created. Others use their skills to create doormats. There’s also a flower arrangement agreement established with Whole Foods.
Kern said the supermarket donates flowers to the VA on a weekly basis. The veterans in the blind program are responsible for putting together bouquets, which are then distributed around the VA campus.
“It’s quite the sensory experience,” Kern said.
The typical length of a stay for a first-time participant is six to eight weeks. Veterans enrolled in the program must live at the center. Sherryl Prelesnik, a living skills specialist, said some of the most important skills and lessons are learned when most of the staff has gone home for the night, when it’s just the veterans.
“Even if they live down the street, they stay with us,” she said. “We want them to have the full experience, At night they may get more of an education from their fellow veterans than they would from any of us.”
Mark Leventhal, a U.S. Army veteran who served in southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, is here for the third time. He lives in Orange but like everyone else, he’s spending his nights at the center.
Leventhal said he came back to learn how to use an Apple iPad.
“Don’t forget, I’m an old person,” he joked.
His first visit involved learning how to use the same video magnifier machine that Campaniel has been learning to use. He learned more computer skills on his second visit. At his home, he uses a desktop computer that talks to him. An iPad will give him the same ability, but Leventhal will be able to bring it anywhere he wants.
“I started getting vision problems when I turned 42,” said Leventhal, who is 67. “Glare is my worst enemy.”
Leventhal said veterans are encouraged to return to the center to learn new skills.
“There have been people coming back here seven or nine times,” he said. “As your sight changes, you need a refresher course.”
Kern stressed that the center is available 24 hours a day to anyone involved in the program, even if they’ve left. She said there is a 24-hour phone number veterans can call if they need help.
“You can even come back if things change in your life,” she said. “A divorce, a move to a new condo — whatever, it doesn’t matter.”
Leventhal said the center has given him his life back.
“I’m here to learn a whole new way of doing things,” he said, as a computerized voice is heard from the iPad in his hand.
The voice prompted him to press a button after his finger glanced off the iPad’s screen.
“Her name is Suri,” he said with a laugh. “She’s a pain.”
Meanwhile, another veteran is learning how to use a similar device, only smaller. Kenneth Holmes has glaucoma. In Kern’s office, she has a drawer full of goggles that can help people with regular sight understand how hard it is for blind people to see.
Matthiessen said that less than 10 percent of the program’s participants are completely blind. The great majority of veterans are classified as legally blind but possessing some sight, like Holmes.
Kern has a set of goggles that simulates the vision abilities for a person with glaucoma. The closest comparison is to close one eye and try looking through the end of a straw.
“He’s looking through an extremely tiny field of vision,” said Holmes’ low-vision instructor Chris Newton, who is teaching Holmes how to use a sliding magnifier to be able to read the numbers on his smartphone.
Holmes said if he’s meeting someone up close, he can make out faces but nothing peripheral. He said his glaucoma diagnosis came in conjunction with an unfortunate event.
“It was 1999 and I came home from the service for my vacation,” he said. “I grew up in a tough area of Philadelphia. A guy pistol-whipped me. I was in uniform when this happened. I still can’t believe it. When doctors operated on my face, that’s when they found out I had glaucoma.”
Holmes was discharged. He said he lived in the suburbs after that but recently moved back to Philadelphia and now lives on the campus of Drexel University.
He arrived at the center on May 29.
“Independence,” he said. “That’s my goal. Being here is a good thing.”
In the hallway leading to Kern’s office are two paintings, one on top of the other, separated by less than an inch. The two paintings are in different frames but the images are contiguous and depict a horn and a violin.
Kern said she notices the two paintings every day; they’re special to her. They were painted by a veteran who came through the program named John Gammuto, who specialized in crafting violins by hand before he began losing his sight.
“He used to make five violins a year,” she said. “When he started losing his vision, he started losing his life.”
Kern said Gammuto worked with manual skills and low-vision specialists, who eventually helped him come up with the devices he needed to build violins again.
“All the staff was in a conference one day after he was gone and we heard a knock on the door,” she said. “It was him. He returned to present us with those paintings. He said he wanted us to never forget we gave him the tools to help get his life back.”
Kern said she decided to hang the paintings with a space in between to represent the time in Gammuto’s life when he was unable to do what he loved.
“The best skills we give them is some normalcy, confidence and the courage to try,” she said.
Like others, Kern said Gammuto has been a repeat visitor. Coming back is always encouraged. Kern said she wants veterans to know that they shouldn’t feel embarrassed or defeated if they elect to return to the center.
“I like to say we’re like Motel 6,” she added. “We’ll always leave the light on for you.”
Call Evan Lips at 203-789-5727. Have questions,feedback or ideas about our news coverage? Connect directly with the editors of the New Haven Register at AskTheRegister.com.