The Braille Monitor                                                                                         October, 2003


Medical Doctor Takes Up Braille after Retirement

by Dr. Hilary Connor

From The Editor: The following article first appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of the Braille Spectator, the publication of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland. It begins with Editor Al Maneki's head note:

Dr. Hilary Connor
Dr. Hilary Connor

Dr. Hilary Connor is eighty-one years old and still going strong. He was born in Rhode Island and served as an officer in the Navy during World War II, where he met his future wife, a Navy nurse. He completed his medical residency after World War II. His long medical career included seventeen years in private practice as a pediatrician, followed by many years in the U.S. Public Health Service, where he began working with Native Americans on their reservations in the West. His long and distinguished career culminated in eight years of service as the director of the State Board of Medicine of Virginia. Dr. Connor tells us that after retirement he and his wife decided to live in Maryland so that they could be at the focus of their four children, who are scattered up and down the East Coast. In this poignant article Dr. Connor explains that he suddenly became blind after retirement. Although he did not know us at that time, he responded to this dramatic change in true Federation spirit. The story of his blindness can serve as an inspiration to all of us. This is what he says:

I spent many years in the clinical practice of medicine. The last eight years of my full-time activity was spent as the director of the State Board of Medicine of Virginia. At the age of seventy-three, I decided to retire and move to Maryland.

Shortly after retirement I realized that I couldn't sit around and just do nothing, so I agreed to work two days a week as a consultant to the State Board of Medicine of Maryland. But six months after I retired, in January of '95, I had an attack of temporal arteritis, an autoimmune disease, and in a matter of days I went from 20/20 vision to total blindness. I watched the Super Bowl Sunday night; I was totally blind on Tuesday morning. A week later, when I left the hospital, I returned to the office to close out my desk. My wife took me there, and the physicians on the board asked that I stay on, saying that they would hire a reader to read the cases to me so that I could continue to consult with them. I explained that my wife had been a nurse and that she could read the cases to me. So I continued to work for another two years, reviewing the cases, having my laptop read me the research, and then attending the sessions and meeting with the board members.

But at the age of seventy-five I decided that I'd really had enough and it was time to retire, so I did. Upon retirement I realized that I needed to do more than just listen to the radio. I went to the National Federation of the Blind headquarters, where I had originally gone to get a cane two years before. This time I asked them to give me some information about how I could learn to read Braille. They referred me to Blind Industries [Blind Industries and Services of Maryland], and I again went over there and met with Ellen Ringlein, who was teaching Braille. I explained that I didn't really want to take daily lessons or be on a schedule, but, if she would give me the books they used to teach Braille, I would teach myself at home. She agreed and gave me the first of the three volumes that I used in learning Braille.

I went home, and, since I had a lot of time to spend on it, I really went at it like an eager beaver and finished the first book, picked up the second, finished the second, and picked up the third. In the meantime every so often the phone would ring, and it would be Ellen checking on me to make sure that I hadn't quit, that I was still going.

Eventually I finished and then headed to the Library for the Blind, where I had been going to pick up cassette books to listen to and now started getting novels in Braille. I still remember my first novel in Braille, The Secret of Snake Canyon. It was a cowboy mystery. Since that day I have never been without a Braille book or novel from the library--best-sellers, mostly spy stories and adventure stories. I've had enough technical stuff all my life that I don't need to continue with it at this point although I still take continuing medical education courses.

I finally realized that, even though I know Braille, I am not a fast reader and never will be. I read with my left hand because I injured my neck years ago and the sensation in my right hand was approximately half of what it was in the left. So I read with my left hand. I decided that maybe I could use my Braille for some other purposes besides my own satisfaction. I went to the veterans hospital to see if they could use a volunteer. Since I am totally blind, I obviously couldn't wheel patients around or things like that, but I said I could teach Braille to blind people if they were interested, and they were. So I have started teaching Braille.

I go over to the veterans hospital two days a week. I've been doing this for three to five years now. My students are old codgers just like me. Fortunately the number of young blind veterans is a small percentage of the older ones, and all the students I have had so far have been in their seventies. The two I have now are seventy-four and seventy-nine years old. The seventy-nine-year-old is very fortunate in that his tactile sensation is fantastic. He can feel the dots beautifully. He has no neuropathy. He has the time to spend on Braille, so he's moving along very rapidly. Some of the others have had to drop out because of illness. But we are in no hurry. We go along at our own pace. If someone's got a medical appointment, we just cancel our meeting. Frequently they call me at home if they've missed a period of time, and we spend an hour on the phone. I have the book. I pick it up, and we just sit there and read it over the telephone.

We're moving along at our own pace, and I find it extremely enjoyable. I have always enjoyed teaching. I enjoyed teaching interns, residents, and medical students, and I find that these elderly men who are interested in Braille are easy students. They're anxious to learn. They're not in a tremendous hurry. They know that it's going to take a little while, and they're patient. I have enjoyed my meetings of the National Federation of the Blind. When I first became blind, the thing that saved me from falling into a deep depression was continuing to work. Let's face it: you can't become blind like that and not be unbelievably depressed. But I continued to work, and that gave me something to do so that I didn't get wound up in self-pity. When I listen to people at NFB meetings, I find people there who have other problems along with their blindness. While they may complain about transportation, mail delivery, and garbage pickup, nobody's complaining about being blind. There's not a lot of that, hardly any of that as a matter of fact, and I think that helps me considerably too. I realized that I'm not alone.

Now at eighty-one it's fortunate for me that the veterans hospital is only about eleven blocks from where I live, and my wife walks there with me. It's a good way of getting exercise. She also walks with me to other places, so we average about three miles a day. This is something that we both need, because she's almost as old as I am.

I also believe that there's more to Braille then just being able to sit down and read or write something, especially for the elderly. I think the elderly need Braille to keep their minds active. Reading Braille is very precise. It's not like French or other languages, where there are always exceptions to the rules. Braille is cut-and-dried. It's going to be the same tomorrow as it is today. Any blind person with average intelligence and enough tactile sensation to feel the dots should learn Braille. To my way of thinking, Braille is the second most important thing for blind people. Obviously traveling with the white cane is the most important thing there is.