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The Extraordinary Days of Dick Conner

An orientation and mobility instructor takes his own vision loss in stride

Margaret Cleary shows Dick how to use a talking glucose meter.Richard Connors, known as Dick, has had diabetes for 51 years, and he knows a lot about it. Now vice president of community services at the Carroll Center for the Blind, Dick has held various positions during his 40-plus-year tenure at the Newton, Massachusetts center: orientation & mobility (O&M)/sensory training instructor, residential rehabilitation director, and technology services director. In an interview, Dick vividly described to me four extraordinary days that have shaped his view of diabetes, vision impairment, and life.

Extraordinary Day Number One: In March 1957, in his twelfth year, Dick got the flu. His impression was that, although he did get better, he never fully recovered. Two months after he got sick, Dick’s mother took him to her doctor at the renowned Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston. The doctor did some tests, and then briefly left the room. He returned with a glass syringe and a vial of cloudy liquid, measured a dose and told Dick to inject himself in the leg.  Appalled and trembling, Dick injected himself with what turned out to be insulin. The doctor said he would have to do that every day for the rest of his life. Clutching a two-page diet, bottles of insulin and urine-testing equipment, young Dick went home and tried to follow the doctor’s instructions.

During his teens, Dick succeeded at keeping his diabetes in check—a success that he credits partly to his diet and largely to the unusual amount of exercise he got. He worked on a farm, and he also had a newspaper route that required bicycling several miles a day. It was when Dick went off to college that he began to have trouble controlling his diabetes; he attributes that to inactivity. In his senior year he heard about the Peripatology (O&M) program at Boston College. “Ah,” he remembers thinking. “Here’s a chance to do something fascinating that requires walking!”

Dick is as active as everExtraordinary Day Number Two: Attending a lecture on vision impairment at Boston College, Dick felt his insides turn to ice as he heard the professor say, “Diabetes mellitus is the leading cause of blindness in adults.” Dick bolted from the room. A classmate ran out after him and caught up with Dick, who blurted, “I have diabetes!” Until then he had had no idea that diabetes and blindness were related.

After the initial shock, Dick came to grips with the fact that he might one day lose his sight. But he wasn’t afraid. He even decided to work in the field of blindness. It was the possibility of kidney disease, more than anything, that scared Dick. Every twinge or backache was cause to imagine the worst. Fortunately, Dick has not been troubled by kidney disease—though he has suffered other complicating conditions, including a heart attack, a stroke and Charcot’s Foot.
Every year, Dick approached his regular ophthalmologic exam with apprehension. And every year his ophthalmologist would say: “Your eyes look excellent!  You’d never know you had diabetes. Your eyes look beautiful.” In 2000, however, after having had diabetes for 43 years, Dick was told by his doctor that he needed to see a retinal therapist to begin laser therapy. For several more years, however, Dick’s vision functioned normally.

Extraordinary Day Number Three: One morning in 2005, Dick awoke with no vision at all in his right eye. A vitrectomy failed to restore his eyesight. His left eye, meanwhile, continued to function. In 2006, Dick learned that he had an aneurysm in that eye that might one day burst. It was near the macula and too risky to treat. Dick went about his business as usual, working and driving.

Extraordinary Day Number Four: September 6, 2006. Dick stopped for coffee on his way to work. Upon returning to the car, something suddenly started happening in his “good eye.” He describes “a very long, winding, thick-bodied black snake” emerging from the center of his visual field. Realizing the aneurysm in his left eye had indeed burst, he also knew he had only minutes to drive back home. He knew, too, that it would be the last time he ever drove.

Now Dick knew for himself the condition about which he had counseled so many others over the years.

Dick coped with this extraordinary day as he had coped with the others. As soon as he could he called his employer to recount what had happened and to say that he would be out for a few days. He called me at the Carroll Center and asked if I would perform a diabetes self-managing assessment and make recommendations. He called the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind to inquire about available services. He asked one of his staff members to provide orientation and mobility lessons. He also requested that a media aide with whom he had worked install a speech-recognition program on his computer.

A week later, Dick returned to work via public transportation. Today, his lengthy daily commute involves three bus changes. Dick likes to tell a story on himself when he gives O&M instruction: On his first day back to work, he got on a bus going the wrong direction.

He’s got it down now, though. With 51 years of diabetes and three and a half years of severe visual impairment, Dick Connors gets to work, manages his diabetes, asks for help when he needs it and performs his daily business as ever. “Now,” says Dick, “every day is an extraordinary day.”

About the Author

Margaret E. ClearyMargaret E. Cleary is Director of Admissions and Diabetes Educator at the Carroll Center for the Blind since 1982. During all this time, she has worked with other diabetes professionals, consumers, families, pharmaceutical representatives and manufacturers to help provide the optimum education, skills, adaptive devices and care for people with diabetes and visual impairment. She can be reached at [email protected].