The blind man who helped this physician

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“Go through the gate. You will see an old white fence on the right, and the broken-down shack to your left.”

I listened intently to the mysterious blind man over the phone as the reception came in and out.

“Drive for about a minute and then park where the fence ends. “Walk down the mountainside, and you will see the river.”

I was somewhat amazed as I drove down the dusty road. He had lost his vision over ten years prior, but his voice was painting me a map. Soon, I lost phone reception on the side of this Colorado Mountain, but it was enough.

Months earlier, my dad died suddenly and unexpectedly. Struggling with the loss, I was on the verge of dropping out of my last year of medical school. It was during these lonely months that I first crossed paths with the blind man at the VA hospital next to my medical school near Chicago, which started an unexpected friendship.  The hobby of fishing had brought us together, one that I seemingly spent every free moment of my childhood and young life doing with my father.

The blind man didn’t know, and I didn’t tell him, but I had once walked this land with my father, hunting for elk and fishing for trout in my early teenage years. The blind man had taken me back here, for which I was grateful. I stepped outside, took a breath of the thin, crisp October mountain air, grabbed my fishing pole, and headed towards the river.

I came to the river in the valley, a stunning scene as the tree leaves were beginning to change yellow and orange with snow-capped mountains off into the distance.  I threw my line in the icy cold, clear stream and caught trout after trout. After a few hours, the wind started to blow, and I started to shiver as the raindrops hit the back of my neck. As I decided to head home, I looked up, and my heart stopped for a moment. I noticed a clearing in the clouds and a rainbow forming across the sky as it cut into the mountainside.  Suddenly, I felt at peace. A feeling that I hadn’t felt since before my Dad’s passing.

***

“Dad, wake up,” I said shortly after my alarm went off at 3 a.m. I was determined to get out on the water before sunrise. My dad spent nearly his entire life working long hours at a car factory outside of Detroit until the looming financial crisis in the late 2000s shut the plant down for good. During my childhood, when he wasn’t working, we were on the water. Growing up in Michigan, we spent most of our time fishing the Great Lakes, which pushed our boat to the limit. I lost count of all the times we barely made it back from an unexpected storm or some kind of boat malfunction. But these were our adventures, always together. He always said, “It’s not about the fish we catch. It’s about spending time with the people you love.”

After a long day on my internal medicine student rotation, I called my dad. We talked about my day in the hospital, but our main focus was planning our fishing trip the following week over my spring break. “Love you, Dad,” I said at the end. “Love you too,” he said. That was the last time I heard his voice.

***

I squeezed into the boat seat next to the blind man’s massive six-foot-five, nearly 400-pound frame. I so wished the blind man could see the ocean where I now lived in Rhode Island for my emergency medicine residency. The ocean here reminded me of the Great Lakes I grew up on, tough and unforgiving. We were 30 miles offshore as dolphins swam alongside us, whales breached the surface, and tuna busted the water chasing schools of mackerel.

I closed my eyes. I wanted to feel what it was like to be the blind man. I could no longer anticipate wave after wave as we motored across the sea. A mist of cool saltwater constantly sprayed us in the face. I noticed a fishy odor as a whale expelled air from its blowhole, and I wondered if the blind man could smell it.  I realized the blind man probably didn’t know who was sitting next to him. I yelled my name into his ear over the wind and squeezed his hand. I felt at peace again. I hoped the blind man did too.

***

I started to attend veteran fishing events with my medical school best friend, Andy, where I eventually met the blind man, Bob, a patient at the VA’s blind rehabilitation program. Bob was a Gulf War era veteran who grew up in Colorado. Several years before we met, he woke up blind and partially deaf from complications during an elective abdominal aortic aneurysm repair.

The rehab program was quite remarkable, teaching him various skills, from reading braille and leatherworking to tying fly fishing flies. I would often visit him after my hospital rotations. I found it surprisingly easy to check him out of the rehab center for the day to go fishing with him.  “Just bring him back before midnight,” the secretary said as I signed him out.

Eventually, Bob moved back home with his family, now in Minnesota. Unsure if we would ever see Bob again, Andy and I got the idea of a fundraiser to take him fishing and quickly raised thousands of dollars for him. So we flew Bob to Rhode Island so he could experience saltwater fishing for the first time. Since then, we have made it an annual event. It is during these moments with Bob that brings me back to my childhood, memories of a father and son, making adventures of a lifetime together. And though Bob may never realize it, perhaps he has done more for me than I ever will for him.

Michael Wilk is an emergency medicine resident.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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