Vets facing blindness now have local assistance working to shed light

KINGSTON — Imagine only being able to see a dark blur where a friend’s, son’s, daughter’s or teacher’s face should be. The blur radiates out, smudging into color and eventually, in the peripheral vision, everything becomes clear.

This is what Kingston resident Ron Muell sees every day. Six years ago while he was blowing leaves in his yard, his vision began to waver and things become blurry. After several tests were conducted, Muell’s doctor diagnosed him with macular degeneration, a syndrome that causes fluid to leak into the eye and, after time, leads to complete blindness.

After receiving a referral to the Blind Rehabilitation Program at American Lake for veterans, Muell, a U.S. Air Force veteran, is seeking others who have served their country and now may also being fighting the fear of losing their vision. The Tacoma-based program operates under the auspices of the VA Puget Sound Health Care System and is open to all veterans. It assists the participants in learning to live with their diagnosis and allows them to live as independently as possible.

“I went online and diagnosed myself,” Muell said. “The doctor backed it up and I really didn’t know much at that point. I didn’t know that total blindness was involved.”

He was referred from the Naval Hospital Bremerton to Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, which had laser treatments that could assist in halting complete blindness. From there, Muell was referred to the program at American Lake, and said it was a life-changing experience in the face of a deterioration costing him his vision. The six-week long program at American Lake allows each participant to build up different aspects of every day life so they could learn to work around their dimming vision. One veteran, Muell recalls, wanted only to learn how to use Microsoft Word so he could write his memoirs.

“These guys’ stories were just fascinating,” he said of the other patients he met during the six weeks he was there. “The whole program was amazing. As many groups as I try to influence, I try to do that. I’ve talked to people informally, I talked to the Kingston seniors.”

Muell is now trying to find other veterans, both locally and perhaps further away from Kingston, to alert them to the program. Many may not know about it, and prefer to slowly go blind than actively seek help, he said. He is speaking with as many groups and individuals as possible to spread the word about the sight program. It can allow them to reestablish leading healthy, independent lives and assists them with anything they might need. A woodworking room, computer room and kitchen are all just one aspect of helping veterans of all ages in taking back their lives, even if their sight isn’t cooperating.

It is an in-patient program, though family and spouses are allowed to visit on weekends, or the patient can go home for the two-day break. Muell said he personally didn’t visit with his wife, Helen, or go home because he wanted the full experience of being an individual before he came back to Kingston.

“If an amputee goes into a program there, they provide them with a prosthetic,” he said, referring to the aid provided to the veterans to make their lives easier with ailing sight. “I can do everything now that I could before except drive and they’re working on that right now. ... There’s lots of technology and 10 years from now, there are going to be such advances.”

Anyone interested in the program can contact Muell for more information at (360) 297-3580.

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