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What Would You Do?


Dec. 13, 2004 – What would you do if you woke up one morning and found your whole life had changed? What if the things everyone takes for granted in life now presented unprecedented challenges, and you faced the prospect of never seeing the faces of your loved ones again?
What would you do if you woke up one morning and found you were blind?
Well, that was the reality faced by Jose Benitez one morning in August of 2002. That was the day his life changed forever.
Benitez, 42, considered himself to be a healthy man in the prime of his life. Trained as an industrial engineer, he enjoyed his job in the Management Information Services of the District Court in Christiansted. His hobbies included creating Web sites and computer repair. He loved to read and watch baseball and cartoons.
He is a self-professed "Trekkie," an avid fan of the "Star Trek" series. He was proud of his family – his wife and his three teenage boys. His future looked bright.
"I was never sick, not even a cold or the flu," he said. But it was too late when Benitez realized even healthy people need to visit their doctors – at least once a year: "I didn't get regular checkups."
Little did he know that a debilitating disease was ravaging his body and would, without much warning, claim his sight.
On that fateful day in August, Benitez woke up without vision in his right eye. "All I could see was a black dot," he said.
He went to the doctor and was diagnosed with advanced diabetic retinopathy. Soon afterward the vision in his left eye failed. Diabetic retinopathy results from damage to the blood vessels that supply the retina. The advanced stage of the disease is called proliferative diabetic retinopathy, which affects the blood vessels causing them to rupture. These vessels tighten and pull on the retina, and, without causing any discomfort, detach it from the eye’s inner wall.
"My retina just fell off to the floor of my eye," he said. Now Benitez' eyes can perceive only light.
Benitez said he recalled afterwards that he did have symptoms of diabetes – increased urination and excessive thirst – but he didn’t think it was anything to be alarmed by.
But all these obstacles did not deter Benitez from living his life. "My mother always told me, there is something positive in everything," he said.
He has hope for the future and is confident of the advances being made by modern medicine: "Maybe in the future I may get back part of my vision."
Today Benitez has made adjustments in his life and is learning to use the tools available to persons with impaired vision. He has changed his diet and is now a vegetarian. He subscribes to several magazines, which he "reads" using the Library of Congress audio machine.
Benitez uses a program called Juggling Applications With Speech (JAWS) to operate his computer. "I can do everything on a computer anyone else can do except the interface for Web sites. You need sight to do that," he said.
As for his employment opportunities Benitez says he feels "positive and optimistic." He presently works at the V.I. Resource Center for the Disabled assisting other disabled people master the computer.
One thing the disease did not take is Benitez' sense of humor and his ability to see the bright side of all situations.
"I don’t even know how my wife looks now; people say she still looks good," he said with a laugh. He said that his disability has caused him to listen to people more closely and be more sincere in his conversations. "I enjoy listening to people and hearing their reactions."
"You can only deal with things like this from two perspectives: from depression or resolve. It's like a prize, something you can beat. You can't sit on the sofa like a hermit crab. You have to say 'No, this is not something that can stop me.'"
For more information on services for the disabled in the Virgin Islands call the V.I. Resource for the Disabled on St. Thomas at 777-2253 or on St. Croix at 713-2253.

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