Thursday, September 28, 2006

Visually impaired woman keeps her independence

Close your eyes. Now imagine crossing the street.

Sound like a risky venture? For Eleanor Loomans of Waupun, it's just a fact of life.

Declared legally blind in 1996, Loomans has come to terms with a life filled with major adjustments.

"I miss my freedom and mobility the most," Loomans said. "People take for granted things like getting into the car at the spur of the moment and running errands. For me, I have to plan everything out."

While she depends on family, friends and the local taxi service to get her around town, Loomans still maintains her independence in leading an active life.

She credits her feisty, can-do attitude and faith for pulling her through the challenging times.

An uncertain future
Referred to an eye specialist during what she thought was a routine physical before returning to college to finish her bachelor's degree in nursing at the age of 29, Loomans was stunned to learn that she had the progressive eye disease retinitis pigmentosa.

"They couldn't tell me how far the disease would progress and to what extent it would affect my eyesight. All they could tell me was there was no treatment," said Loomans, who had brought her concerns about decreased peripheral vision and night blindness to a physician five years earlier only to have them brushed aside.

Although her world was turned upside down, she was determined to complete her education.

"If there was nothing they could do, then there was nothing for me to do but go on," she said.

Maintaining independence
As the years passed, Loomans' eyesight continued to deteriorate until she gave up her driver's license in 1996. However, she continued to work at Waupun Memorial Hospital until 2004.

In the meantime, Loomans adapted her lifestyle and home.

"A lot of people wonder how I put on makeup or fix my hair by myself," she said with a laugh.

As a nurse she was organized, but Loomans admits that bringing strict order to her life at home wasn't as easy. Using a Braille machine she labels file folders and boxed dry goods and has placed raised stickers on the dial of her oven to determine temperature settings. She continues to do all of her own washing and ironing.

"These flat control panels on new appliances are so hard to use," Loomans said.

Since losing her eyesight, Loomans said her sense of touch and of hearing have become more acute.

"Visually impaired people become very dependent on verbal stimulation," said Loomans.

She has a talking alarm clock, a color indicator machine that helps her select matching clothes from her closet.

"Some days the machine mixes everything up and it gets a bit frustrating," she said.

An advanced system on her home computer reads aloud Loomans' incoming e-mails.

Helping hands
She still depends on friends and family to help her sort her mail and keep abreast of her financial records.

Loomans credits the continued adult education programs offered through the Wisconsin Institute for the Blind for improving the quality of her life.

"It also allows me to be here in my own home," she said.

Not one to sit still, Loomans continues to be active in her church, organizing the annual citywide choral benefit concert and launching a parish nurse program.

She has become an advocate for the blind and visually impaired population by sitting on the advisory council to the state secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

"I represent the consumer base by sharing my input with organizations that serve the blind about the availability, accessibility and quality of services available to us," Loomans said.

The former nurse was among many blind and visually impaired adults that were able to use the new handicap accessible voting equipment in the recent primary election.

"The last 12 years I've needed assistance with voting," Loomans said. "It was nice to be able to sit down with a pair of headphones and a keyboard and be able to cast my vote independently and in private. It was almost like a victory."

Visually impaired individuals are always looking for opportunities and devices that are easy to operate, she said.

According to the Wisconsin Institute for the Blind, there are already 200,000 blind and visually impaired individuals living in Wisconsin — a number that's expected to increase. And with early detection and treatment, a devastating diagnosis could be avoided.

"Don't take your sight for granted," Loomans said. "Be sure to get regular check-ups because once you start experiencing visual problems it may be already too late."


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