by Jamie P. Olmstead
From the Editor: This is the kind of pre-convention newspaper story that any state-convention organizer would give her eye teeth to get. This story appeared in the November 4, 1999, edition of the Waterbury Republican-American.
On any given day one can find Donna Balaski outdoors tending to the orange, yellow, and rust-colored marigolds growing in beds bordering her home. Friends, family, and neighbors often comment on her green thumb, marveling at her Crayola-colored creations.
Even more remarkable than her way with flowers is the fact that Donna Balaski can't see what she's tending.
"My gardening has become a true passion for me," said Balaski, a Waterbury resident who lost her sight three years ago.
Balaski, a facial trauma surgeon who earned her medical degree from the University of Connecticut, was finishing her residency at the Catholic Medical Center in New York state when she had trouble seeing.
While visiting her parents in Waterbury for an anniversary celebration, she awoke to discover dark black spots clouding her vision. Balaski, thirty-three at the time, was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy and retinitis pigmentosa.
"Losing my sight was the farthest thing from my mind," she said. Falling into a depression, Balaski didn't return to work and despaired over living in darkness.
"I took my sight for granted. I was depressed and didn't know where I was going in life or what I was going to do."
At her doctor's office Balaski picked up a brochure featuring the National Federation of the Blind of Connecticut. That brochure changed her life.
Through the Federation Balaski discovered options. She learned about the Board of Education Service for the Blind and the Louisiana Center for the Blind. With the organizational support she needed, Balaski headed south. "Just because you're blind doesn't mean you can't go on living," Balaski said. The Louisiana Center for the Blind taught her just that. Described by Balaski as a "progressive/aggressive school," the center doesn't take no for an answer.
It was there that she joined the ranks of blind men and women in activities usually reserved for people with more than a modicum of sight: rock climbing, white water rafting, and firearms training. The center gave them an opportunity to keep active and the courage to live their lives to the fullest.
Today Balaski leads a full life. Currently working as a vision rehabilitation counselor at Ophthalmic Surgical Associates in Waterbury, she counsels low-vision patients who find themselves in similar situations.
"There is no reason for people to sit home as I once did," she said. "There is a whole host of wonderful resources out there, and I see to it that people are aware of all their options. Doing what I do, I can help so many people get their lives back on track."
Much of her success in coping with blindness, Balaski said, is owed to the National Federation of the Blind.
"If it wasn't for the NFB, I wouldn't be where I am today," she said. "I've learned that life goes on. I may have to do things a little differently than most, but I'm just an average person."
She can even joke about her condition. "At least now I'm sure that every guy I date looks like Tom Cruise," Balaski said with a chuckle.
In conjunction with Chris Boisvert, Balaski has organized the 1999 annual state convention sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind.