Blindness alters life, but not completely

Accident: Ellen Bomer, who lost her sight in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, learns to depend on her remaining senses, as well as on herself.

October 06, 1999|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

Some things about Ellen Bomer's life in the United States aren't any different from the life she led as a U.S. Embassy employee overseas: She has a driver, as she did for nine years in Saudi Arabia because women aren't allowed to drive, and she selects her clothes by phone, from her favorite department store, inquiring first about color, texture and new designers. The brown silk Dana Buchman suit she wore yesterday arrived last week.

She has her sense of humor, too -- she regards her life with chauffeur and mail-order clothes as training for life now.

Bomer is blind. She lost her sight 15 months ago in the 1998 terrorist bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya. Listening is one thing the 52-year-old former U.S. Foreign Service worker has learned to do in the past five months. She also mastered new skills in the kitchen, if dinner for 40 is proof, new keys on her computer and crossing the curb at her feet. Last week she stormed a shopping mall using a specially designed compass as her guide.

Bomer described her adjustment during an interview at the Baltimore headquarters of the National Federation of the Blind, where she speaks tonight at a reception. She says she's been guided by her strong Roman Catholic faith and her discovery that blind people can do just about anything sighted people can do -- only differently. Technology is one reason; every day a machine scans her mail and reads it aloud to her.

She's changed, too. Managing an F-15 contract with the Saudis or overseeing contractors on a military base in Nairobi, she had little patience with herself. She's grown less inhibited, more tolerant, and, she thinks, kinder.

"I know I've been given a second chance. I'm a person like everyone else. I have foibles, weaknesses; basically I'm a lazy person. But I won't be beat by it," she says.

She found ways to cope from the beginning; she says a near-death experience gave her the inner peace to go on. "Beat up" emotionally and physically and unable to care for herself, she realized she'd lost control of her life and allowed herself to be fed and nurtured by strangers.

That's when she started to heal, she says.

"I know I can do it. I am supposed to do it," she says she told herself. "The overwhelming part was how was I going to do it?"

At Walter Reed Army Hospital, where Bomer was operated on two days after the bombing, she remembers being afraid to close her eyes -- even though she couldn't see -- and scared someone would get her.

She was operated on eight times in three months; cornea transplants next month may restore some vision, but she expects to remain legally blind.

Several times in her recuperation when Bomer says she was "real down" and needed "a jolt to the spirit," friends would call. This happened three times in two days, and after the third call, she says she "got it" -- she was not going to get depressed, she told herself, because someone would call her and help her bounce back. "OK, I can do it," she told herself.

That's when she began her search for a support group for people who are blind. She found the federation, a 50,000-member organization, and learned of the Louisiana Center for the Blind, where she has studied the past five months.

It's been hard -- especially being without her husband, but she stayed long enough to know she can get around by herself. "Being at the center has given me back a part of myself I thought I lost," she says.

Her big frustration is that she still can't read, and she loves to read. Bomer imagined she'd be reading 60 or 70 words a minute in Braille already, but it hasn't happened; her right hand has no feeling, and she's using only the left.

Her hand will get better, she expects, and she'll continue learning Braille at home. Other frustrations, such as trying to pick out clothes without knowing what colors they are, she has given up worrying about -- at least until her husband purchases a hand-held machine that calls out the color of an object it touches.

"I'm a visual person," she says. "I've accepted the fact that I am blind. But what is that?"

In conversation, she reads voices instead of eyes or body language.

"You can tell by the tone of voice whether a person is impatient, smiling, disinterested but polite," she says.

In her mind's eye she pictures Ruston, La., where she attends school, as something out of a Norman Rockwell painting. It is indeed an old Southern town where people stop to help her cross the street. "No, thanks," she tells them. "I am using my ears."

Last month Bomer rode a horse again for the first time since riding lessons in Sauda Arabia. The minute she mounted, she panicked.

Encouraged by her teacher, though, Bomer stayed with the horse down gullies and through brooks, feeling like she was on a roller coaster without knowing where she was headed.

Bomer returns to her home in Huntsville, Ala., next week, excited but scared, after 15 months of living out of a suitcase. She's writing her story and finishing some children's books begun in 1990. All the while, she says she'll be searching, searching for what it is she is supposed to do next.

Ellen Bomer will speak at a free reception at 6: 30 tonight at the National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson St., South Baltimore. For more information, call 410-659-9314.

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