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About 10 months ago, 47-year-old Stacey Krahl was lying in bed in her boyfriend’s Borrego Springs home, reading “The Chase” by Clive Cussler. She was about halfway through the adventure novel when she turned off the light and went to sleep.
She woke up the next morning with plans to walk her dogs. But something was amiss.
“I couldn’t see,” Krahl recalls. “And I panicked.”
The next few hours were frenzied. A friend raced Krahl to a Riverside County hospital, where she would spend the next month recovering. Doctors diagnosed her with neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorder. It means that Krahl’s immune system is attacking the protective sheath on the optic nerve — preventing her pupils from constricting. It’s why she almost always wears a pair of dark sunglasses. There’s simply too much light coming into her eyes.
“It’s like being in a snowstorm,” she says.
So, at 47, Krahl is learning for the first time how to be blind, how to navigate the world with a cane. The once voracious reader is now a voracious listener.
That’s what brought her here to El Cajon Boulevard. On Wednesdays, she hops in a bus at her father’s Lakeside home. At each stop, the bus driver, Everett Gant, hops out and helps in another patron of the San Diego Center for the Blind.
Myriad frustrations extend into the minutiae of Krahl’s new life and they often strike at a basic human desire: independence. She learns to cope with those struggles each week she spends at the center.
For Krahl, coping means dealing with simple challenges like picking out her clothes in the morning. To avoid walking out of the house with clashing colors, she has to ask her father to identify what garment she’s holding. But on a recent Wednesday, she found out that there is another way.
In Room C, a place Krahl’s quickly learning to navigate to and from, she’s part of an assisted living class. Here, an instructor runs through various devices to assist the blind.
There’s a Braille typewriter, and a scanner that can read a bar code and tell you what product you’re holding at the grocery store.
But of particular interest to Krahl is a scanner that you can place on any fabric and it will say the color out loud.
“I could use that,” she says.
Her classmates can relate. And that’s a big reason why Krahl likes coming here. Beyond the practical skills, the center also provides a network of people struggling with similar challenges.
“It’s a nice social outlet in the sense that you’re surrounded by people who are coping with the same kind of crap,” she says, “the same frustrations.”
Clients at the center often air these frustrations in Room C in the afternoon. That’s when groups meet for candid discussions about their feelings and how they’re coping with blindness. It’s the last class of the afternoon, and the one that Krahl describes as the touchy, feely part of the day.
After the meeting, she feels her way back to the lunch room, getting caught up in the occasional traffic jam — a frequent occurrence and expected consequence of so many people with blindness helping one another through the tight hallways.
“It’s the blind leading the blind,” Krahl jokes.
The people leading her are mostly new friends, but from their demeanor, you’d think they’d known each other all their lives.
There’s Maurice Woods, who shares a lot of classes with Krahl and competes with her for being the most outspoken. The two also share an affinity for music. Together, they belt out James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” in the lunchroom.
There’s Joni Meir, a volunteer at the center, who rides the bus with Krahl and helps her find her morning cup of coffee.
“She’s an inspiration,” Krahl says. “She’s just so upbeat and so happy.”
Then there’s Jared, who asked that only his first name be used. Krahl describes him as her “little brother” at the center and she ribs him on the bus ride in, when he says that he was sick, but is getting better.
“I’d be happy to smack you around a bit,” she shouts to the back of the bus.
At the end of the day, Krahl spends a few last minutes with her friends at the center before heading home. She shares a common bond with others here, but she’s also in a unique situation.
While many of the center’s clients suffer from macular degeneration, or some other sort of progressive, incurable sight loss, Krahl’s disorder is rare and the treatment is unpredictable. She has a catheter in her chest so that she can undergo a twice-weekly, dialysis-like treatment. Krahl has hope that this might help restore some of her sight.
“Hope is the biggest thing. Hope is what keeps you going. Even though the reality is that it might not change,” Krahl says. Moments later, she adds. “It’s gotta come back. It’s gotta.”