Blind Vet Salutes VA Health Care

HERMITAGE -- News articles have told and retold the story of medical treatment delays and other problems with Veterans Affairs services. Dee Knupp hasn't had any such problems at all.

The Air Force staff sergeant and communications specialist who re-entered civilian life after 12 years of service has only good things to say about the VA.

Knupp was left legally blind after an artery got pinched while a breathing tube was being inserted during surgery in 2007 for appendicitis. As a result, she suffered several strokes about two weeks later that damaged her optic nerve. She recovered only about 3 percent of the field of view she formerly had with normal vision.

"The first time in my life that I ever had surgery, I went blind," Knupp said. "My eyes are fine but it's the connection to my brain that was damaged."

Losing so much of her vision was life changing for the former Hubbard resident who now lives at Whispering Oaks in Hermitage. Knupp had always been physically active, walking, riding a bicycle and lifting weights to maintain good health. Disabled by her loss of sight, she could no longer work at her job as a jail guard in Portage County, Ohio.

Recovery would have been much more difficult, she said, without the rehabilitation services she got and the help she continues to receive from the VA.

She traveled to Chicago for two four-week sessions of rehabilitation where therapists helped her with mobility, orientation needed to maneuver outside her home, living skills to mark furniture and other objects at home, and training in manual skills to improve her confidence in her sense of touch.

"They helped me learn to be blind," Knupp said.

These days, she gets around easily with a collapsible cane that helps her feel where steps or curbs are. She is accompanied by Hallie, her guide dog provided by Pilot Dogs of Columbus, Ohio. The VA covers veterinary care for the 5-year-old yellow lab who is both a guide and constant companion for Knupp.

Veterans Affairs bought her a computer with such features as large print and the capability to read documents, much like listening to a radio. Knupp uses a talking watch and talking calculator, a template for writing checks, a "color mate" that identifies the color of clothing when it is touched against fabric, and a "product mate" that reads the bar codes of foods at the grocery store, telling Knupp, for example, whether she has selected a can of vegetable soup or mushroom soup.

She gets technical support over the phone for her computer and, if necessary, service calls at her apartment. She receives her health care and prescriptions, "everything but dental," through the VA, she said.

Her pride and joy, though, may be the $2,400 tandem bicycle provided by the VA. A bike rider since childhood, Knupp wanted her own model of the bicycle with side-by-side seats she had used during rehab.

"I was the first veteran to ask for my own bicycle," Knupp said. "I had to show them that I already had an exercise routine that the bike would supplement. I had to show them that I had somebody to ride with and a garage to store it in."

She found both at Whispering Oaks. Her exercise buddy is Gail Armstrong who moved into the senior apartments after her husband Dave, retired marketing director at The Herald, died last November.

Both women pedal but Armstrong steers the bike, operating its eight gears and handbrakes as she and Knupp ride the quarter-mile of sidewalks around the building.

"I call her Mario Andretti because she goes kind of fast sometimes," Knupp, 53, said. "We go zipping around the building but if we come up on somebody with a walker, we go off road onto the grass."

The team effort was a good fit for Armstrong, an active 77-year-old who rode bicycles, walked and went sailing with her late husband when they lived in Fort Myers, Fla. "I've always liked to be active," she said. "I'm game for anything."

In addition to the help she has gotten from Veterans Affairs, Knupp said she has benefited from transportation provided by Keystone Blind Association to out-of-town medical appointments and a support group in Youngstown. Local transportation for shopping and for fun in the Whispering Oaks van was a big factor in her decision to move there last January.

She also relies on Chestnut Ridge Church of God in Hubbard Township, where she is an active member.

"I do a lot with them and they come and get me" for activities during the week and worship services on Sunday, Knupp said. "My church family has been a vital part of my life since I went blind. They have helped me learn that it's not about how much I have lost, it's what I still have left."

Knupp wants other veterans, especially those with vision impairments, to know about the good experience she has had with the often-maligned VA.

"I'm concerned that there could be blind veterans who aren't using VA services because they have heard the horror stories, or maybe their experience was a horror story, so now they're afraid to try the VA," she said. "If that's true, they should try again because there are so many things they can provide to make your life better if you need it." ___

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This article was written by Joe Wiercinski from The Herald, Sharon, Pa. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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