By Jeanette M. Schmoyer
When I was in 7th grade, I became aware that my eyesight was different from other students around me. When the sun was shining on my school desk, I could not see any print on a piece of paper, but if I pulled the shade, down I could read the print on the paper. By 9th grade I could not see the writing on the blackboard from any front row seat. The diagnosis was Juvenile Macular Degeneration and I was told that a blind spot was developing in my central vision.
In 10th grade, I acquired a prototype of G-15 sunglasses, much darker than any tint in sunglasses before that. The G-15s were developed for jet pilots who flew higher than previous pilots and nearer the sun and needed more protection from the bright rays of the sun. I used these sunglasses indoors in brightly lit rooms to be able to read. I tried to use wrap around glasses over the top of my indoor glasses to get it dark enough for outdoors.
In 1980, when I was almost 40 years old, I had lost enough vision to begin stumbling over broken or raised sidewalks. Every time I stumbled and threw my head back to keep from falling on my face, I felt a knife-stabbing pain in my center lower back. Then through the local blindness agency, I went to a low vision clinic. There I acquired NOIR sunglasses for outdoor travel. The NOIR that I have used ever since are one or two percent transmission of light compared to the fifteen to eighteen percent transmission of my indoor glasses. I also realized I would need to begin using a white cane outdoors when I was on my own. After several months on a waiting list for white cane training and several more painful stumbles when I jerked my head back to keep from falling on my face, I became a white cane user. I felt more secure walking the streets, and the stumbling over broken sidewalks ended. But the damage had been done. The trauma and injury to my back led to chronic back pain and I began a journey to arthritis doctors, chiropractors, aqua aerobics, too much Tylenol, and finally pain management with epidurals and the medication Lyrica. I continued to use the important white cane that warned me of curbs, steps, and uneven places on the walking surfaces.
From the first years I was married in the early 1960s, I used buses to go to work, and through the years of raising our children, I used buses to take them to their doctor and dentist appointments, and to take them clothing and shoe shopping. After 1980, my all-important white cane was always with me. In addition to providing safety as I traveled, it let bus drivers know that I could not see the destination signs on buses, and it let clerks know why I was asking their assistance to identify colors and read price tags.
By 2006, the pain in my back was becoming such that I could no longer walk the distances I had to in order to use bus services. My husband had retired and we were traveling together most of the time in his car. Outdoors, he often became my human guide, even though I still used my white cane in addition. However, all the various traumas to my back, including falling the last few feet from a ladder when I missed a rung, and falling out of a motor home door when the steps had retracted without my being aware, had taken their toll. I needed to begin using a support cane to assist my walking because of instability due to the pain in my back. I switched from the white cane to a support cane and continued to have a human guide when the circumstances made my sunglasses less than sufficient.
I made up my mind that if I had to use a support cane, it would be a pretty one! So I chose a cane with painted pink roses on it. We moved in 2008 to a rural senior retirement community where I could use an elevator instead of the multiple stairs in our split-level home, and I could use the community shuttle to get to local amenities when my husband was not available to drive us there.
My white cane became an infrequent companion after that. With my indoor sunglasses I still could see well enough to get around independently indoors, and with my outdoor, darker sunglasses I did fine outdoors, with a human guide only in unfamiliar places. I had less independence, but the support cane gave me another option for security in travel. I enjoyed my pink roses support cane and it drew a lot of fun attention. After some months, the pink cane seemed a bit too summery for during the winter, so I got a second support cane, black with some red flowers. Having two support canes also allowed me to keep one at home and one in the car. If I was having a good day and did not use a cane to go to the car, there was one there if I needed it during the time I was away from home.
Meanwhile, my dry juvenile macular degeneration continued to progress. In 9th grade my acuity was 20/200. By 2013 it was judged to be 20/1000 or greater. I am beginning to be more uncertain of my indoor surroundings. A housekeeper’s cart in a hallway can catch me by surprise. Grocery stores with their numerous display stands in the aisles make grocery shopping a nightmare. I am now trying to visualize myself using a support cane and a white cane together.
My right hand is definitely my dominant hand. Whether the cane is white or pink, it is only comfortable in my right hand. Using those two canes will not be like using two crutches or even two support canes. How will my balance keep an even keel while leaning on one support cane and using the white cane to feel the surface of the ground? This is likely to be my next mobility challenge. I did have back surgery in May 2013, and knee replacement surgery in August 2014. I hope these medical procedures might give me more walking stability and I may actually be able to discard the support cane, at least for a number of years. That is yet to be seen as I write this article.
I am 72 years old with arthritis throughout most of my body. The pain and limitations are annoying. Losing eyesight over the years has been annoying. But I have always found alternative methods to do what I want and need to do. One of my friends, now deceased, learned to use a white cane with her wheelchair. If she could do that, I can manage to use both a white cane and a pink cane if I need to do that.