Note from Dan: Our guest poster this morning is a wife and mother from Salem who asked me not to use her name, because of the personal nature of some of the information below. What a great read!
I enjoyed your column this morning and share your frustrations as a parent, child, and spouse of people who have mental illnesses. (Our 17 year old daughter also has bipolar illness and suffered from an “atypical” form of anorexia a few years ago). But I am writing specifically to give you a little back story about Dr. Hartman.
Way, way back in the 70’s (exact date is on an envelope my mother saved, in which I sent a letter describing my experiences) I attended a girl scout camp in Pennsylvania as part of a camp exchange with my home camp in Vermont, where we lived at the time.
The theme of the camp session was “old time crafting” — think Williamsburg type crafts. As part of the session, we were driven to a “Training School for the Blind.” After a tour of the facility, we were treated to a “lecture” by a gentleman who showed us how to weave baskets. He was a graduate of the facility and showed us how blindness did not hamper his crafting skills. But he shared something even more impressive, something that I never forgot, a success story that I have often shared over the years.
He attended the training school to appease his grandmother who wanted him to have a vocation to fall back on. Something he could do, and do well. A way to have a livelihood to support himself, because, after all, he was blind. He became a basketmaker. In his free time, he pursued his own dream, to become a doctor, a psychiatrist. He shared with us, that he was in fact, a doctor who was volunteering at his alma mater to show people that if you have enough determination, blindness would not hold you back from following your dreams.
I remember the face of that young doctor. I remember his name. Fast forward about 35 years. I had moved from New England to Roanoke. A relative mentioned that she had a new psychiatrist who was finally able to help her – and, he was blind. I got chills as I wondered about the possibility that this doctor was my basket weaver. Really, how many blind psychiatrists can there be?
I did some research and found the answer: not many. It turns out that after Dr. Hartman was allowed to attend med school using a proxy (someone who helped him with the visual part of examinations) they broke the mold. He is the only licensed psychiatrist in the US today who became a doctor while blind, though a few were sighted when they became doctors and subsequently lost their vision.
I mentioned my strange discovery to a friend and she said “I’ve heard that story, about the basketweaver turned doctor, Dr. Hartman goes to my church and shared that with us in a class!” More research found that People magazine featured him in an article in 1976, verifying his Pennsylvania residency. So it wasn’t all in my head. This was the same guy.
This article appeared in the Roanoke Star this morning.
Yes, a movie was made about Dr. Hartman, based on his book “White Coat, White Cane: A Blind Doctor’s Remarkable Triumph Against Incredible Odds.”
But that is not quite the end of my story. Shortly after I stumbled upon this synchronistic set of circumstances, I took my daughter to see her new psychiatrist at Carilion. I saw a gentlemen with a white cane deftly moving down the hall. I saw the face, a little bit older, of the man who first told me, all of those years ago, that anyone could pretty much be anything they set their minds to, blind or not.
Too my daughter’s embarrassment, I couldn’t help myself, “Dr. Hartman?” He stopped and turned towards me, “Yes?” I apologized for bothering him, he said that it was no bother and invited me into his office where I told him that we had met before. I shared the circumstances and thanked him for teaching an 8th grader a lesson in life. He sat back in his chair and laughed softly, then thanked me, for taking the time to seek him out.
I see him frequently, from a distance, as we sit in the waiting room. But the sight of him never fails to bring back the awe, the memories, and the marvel that after all of these years, the journeys through life that we have separately traveled, what are the odds that our paths would cross again. What are the odds?
Dan, I love your column, and appreciate your courage (and that of your daughter) to take a giant step in the fight to destigmatize mental illness and eating disorders. My husband has schizophrenia, my mother and one of my daughters have bipolar disorder. I know from experience how difficult it can be. Thanks so much for sharing.