VA NY Harbor Healthcare System
Blind and Undaunted
An immense challenge on its own, managing severe visual impairment or blindness only becomes more difficult with age. “Comprehensive, individualized training for people with visual impairments makes a crucial difference in the lives of those with vision loss. In addition to the Blind Rehab Training, the Visual Impairment Services Team (VIST) Support Group encourages Veterans to socialize and makes it less likely for them to feel isolated ,” says VIST Coordinator Natasha Mlotok at VA’s Manhattan Campus. Certainly, for over 60 years, VA has been offering WW II Army Air Corps Veteran Gwon Woo ongoing support in meeting the challenges of blindness.
Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942, Mr. Woo was stationed in London for three years. Now 101, he has received VA services for the visually impaired for decades. Born in Canton, China, Mr. Woo was working as a waiter at House of Chan restaurant on 52nd Street and Broadway when he was called up. Returning to New York, Mr. Woo settled with his wife and four children, and headed straight back to his former job. Around 1950, his eyesight began to fail. Over time, he became entirely blind.
Occupational Therapist Janet Clark has been working with Mr. Woo since 1980, when he was also involved on an outpatient basis with VIST and related group therapy programs. These have included physical therapy, occupational therapy, workshop programs, activity groups, and outpatient programs for general physical well-being. All emphasized developing the ability to interact and engage with the environment through non-visual means.
According to Ms. Clark, involvement in these programs “means becoming adept at using other senses to compensate for the lack of sight.” Ms. Clark describes Mr. Woo as a kind, patient man who never forgets anyone he meets. Ms. Clark noted that Mr. Woo is one of those who have elected to use braille alone for reading, with braille proficiency becoming something of a “lost art” in a technologically-driven world. These days, patients who are visually impaired are supported in learning electronic technologies. “We have Closed Circuit Television sets (CCTV) that enlarges print on a screen with a contrast background, allowing someone to write out a check for rent, read a prescription bottle, or read a newspaper. Many patients are also using digital recorders to enjoy Talking Books,” said John Collins, VIST Coordinator (Brooklyn Campus.)
Alongside the gains made through occupational therapy to assist him in carrying out the activities of daily life, Mr. Woo forged lifelong connections through his involvement with the VIST groups. Mr. Woo’s daughter, Muriel Woo, a retired NYC public school teacher, said that until recently when his health has largely kept him homebound, her father has valued enormously the opportunity to get together with other Veterans. The chance to engage in “plenty of talking with other Veterans” has been a huge spirit booster. “They’re like fish stories,” Ms. Woo said, smiling, as she described war stories traded by her father and fellow Veterans he’s met through the years at VA. “They get bigger and bigger.”