by Helen O'Neill
From the Editor: On March 18, 2001, Helen O'Neill of the Associated Press put a story on the AP wire that appeared in newspapers all over the country over the next several days. As a result the New York Daily News and "The Today Program" followed up with reporters of their own to talk with Dr. Stanley Wainapel, a blind physician practicing rehabilitation medicine in New York. Dr. Wainapel is a member of the National Federation of the Blind, who says unequivocally that the NFB has made an important difference in his life. Here is the AP story as it appeared around the country:
Stooped in her wheelchair, the patient grumbles about the pain, the cold, her age, her world. "Some nights I'm screaming in agony," she says. "You gotta help me, Doc."
Dr. Stanley Wainapel sizes up the problem immediately. Arthritis has eaten away one seventy-one‑year‑old knee and is gnawing at the other. The prospect of surgery terrifies her. Wainapel checks the movement in the patient's arms and legs, prods the left knee until it hurts. "You're made of pretty sturdy stuff," he tells Myra Edelstein, walking back to his desk. "You should come through the surgery fine."
His voice is reassuring, but he's looking in the wrong direction. "Hey, Doc!" Edelstein yells. "I'm over here, Doc."
Wainapel straightens his gaze with a slightly embarrassed smile. As Edelstein is leaving, she notices a thin white cane propped beside a bookcase in the corner. "He's blind!" she exclaims." My doctor is blind."
With his thick silver hair and silver‑rimmed glasses, his staff jokes that Wainapel looks like Andy Warhol. He cuts a striking figure as he strides through the hospital, white coat flapping, white cane tapping out a path in front: past cabinets and counters and bewildered onlookers who quickly step out of his way.
Sometimes he bumps into patients. Sometimes he bumps into walls. And some days Wainapel, the fifty-four‑year‑old clinical director of rehabilitation at Montefiore Medical Center, has to reassure himself as much as his patients that he was right to choose medicine as his career.
"You need a lot more than eyes," he says, "to be a good physician." Montefiore is an overwhelming place, even for those who can see. Cabs and buses loaded with patients stream up Gun Hill Road, disgorging a swirling human mass that can make it seem as if all the broken bones and sick hearts of the Bronx have landed at the hospital doors.
Inside, skillfully negotiating his way through the chaos, is the doctor many have come to see, the blind piano‑playing doctor who introduces patients to Mozart and Chopin even as he prods joints and listens to hearts and diagnoses disease.
Some patients swear the blind doctor sees their pain better than anyone. "He doesn't judge you from the outside because he can't see the outside," says Maria Asuncion Diaz, a forty-two‑year‑old nurse who is being treated for complications related to Lyme disease. "Because of his blindness I think he really hears what you have to say."
Diaz is wearing a spotted hospital gown and sitting on a bed. In a few moments Dr. Wainapel, who studied acupuncture in China, will stick fourteen needles into her hands, feet, and neck. Diaz doesn't worry about him finding the right pressure points: it's the spots of blood she must wipe away on her own that bother her.
Wainapel knew from childhood that he would eventually go blind. He has choroideremia, a rare inherited disorder that causes progressive degeneration of the retina and of cells in the back of the eye.
He knew he had to fill his memory library before his eyes stopped working. So he did. He traveled. He read. He took photographs: his favorite, taken twenty-five years ago in the Swiss Alps, is blurry and impressionistic, and it is proudly hung above his desk. He played chamber music: other musicians marveled at his ability to sight read.
And, although his parents tried to persuade him that life as a blind piano player might be easier than life as a blind physician, he went to Boston University School of Medicine. It seemed an obvious choice for the son of a doctor and nurse, even though Wainapel knew he could never hop in a car and make house calls as his father had done.
"I couldn't be a surgeon," Wainapel says. "But no physician is master of everything." While in medical school he could still read large print, but by the time he started practicing, his peripheral vision was fading.
So Wainapel specialized in physiatry, in the healing and rehabilitation of patients with all sorts of ailments: lower back pain, hip replacements, carpal tunnel syndrome, chronic fatigue. He sees up to 150 patients a month. Not once, Wainapel says, has a patient been unnerved enough at his blindness to request another physician. In fact, he says, patients can often be more accepting than peers, who sometimes see only the cane.
For years he fought using the cane and the Talking Books and the voice‑activated computer that he now relies on to scan reports and write memos and read medical literature. He avoided anything that marked him as a doctor with a disability. After all, doctors aren't supposed to be defective. Patients are.
And then he reminds himself, as he reminds anyone who asks, that you don't need sight to feel the curve of a spine. "And what is the first thing you do when listening for a very soft heart murmur?" he says. "You close your eyes." But, like any doctor, Wainapel has had emergencies when, despite all his confidence and training, he wondered if he was up to the job.
A couple of years ago, when the Heimlich maneuver didn't work on a relative who was choking, Wainapel was sure he would have to perform the first tracheotomy of his life. "It's just a question of knowing where to cut," he said. "It wouldn't have been pretty, but I could have done it." Fortunately, the operation was not necessary.
In the past decade Wainapel's central vision has deteriorated to the point that he can no longer read, and patients seem no more than shadows when they sit across his desk. For all his assurance and acceptance, there are days when the loss has seemed unbearably cruel. Wainapel has raged at the fact he can no longer sight‑read music. And he knows that if he and his wife Wendy are successful in their quest to adopt a Chinese baby, he will never see the child's face.
Still, these days Wainapel is more at ease talking about his blindness. He doesn't care when patients gasp at the huge black sprawl on their prescriptions: most doctors' prescriptions are illegible anyway, he jokes. And he proudly shows them his Typoscope, a thin plastic wedge that he uses to mark the spot for his signature. But he doesn't do injections anymore. His secretary speed‑reads his mail aloud. And he can't read X‑rays.
Minor inconveniences, says his longtime friend, Dr. Avital Fast, chairman of the department. "In our society there is a huge stigma to being disabled," Fast says. "And by voluntarily taking on that stigma every time he uses his cane, Stanley becomes an inspiration to others with disabilities."
Inam Rihan, a thirty-eight‑year‑old mother of six, suffers from lower back pain and a thyroid disorder. After Wainapel has diagnosed a slipped disc, Rihan complains that cataracts are making it difficult for her to read.
"You don't have to see in order to read," Wainapel said excitedly, pulling out his latest book‑on‑tape: The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx. "I read all the time."
By the time she leaves, Rihan is armed with all sorts of information for the visually impaired, including numbers for Wainapel's own ophthalmologist and the National Library Service for the Blind. She's also been introduced to violinist Oskar Shumsky, whose music plays softly throughout her visit.
Other patients are introduced to Dickens: Wainapel has written about the English author's penchant for disabled heroes in his novels. Or to Beethoven: Wainapel has written about the effect of the musician's deafness on his talent.
Wainapel rarely gives piano recitals anymore, but that has more to do with a tight schedule than with blindness. And then some days, when there is a lull between patients, he tap‑taps his way upstairs to the hospital community room. The piano is as old and tired as the plastic flowers on the tables. Most in the audience, a dozen or so elderly patients in wheelchairs, are dozing.
Suddenly a Chopin polonaise fills the room, soft and enchanting and so otherworldly that nurses pause on their rounds to listen and patients take a break from their pain. For fifteen minutes on a busy morning, the blind piano‑playing doctor creates a little piece of wonder in Montefiore.