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I AM BLIND

"It does not define me."

Writer, Shenetha Shipp

When a doctor examined Thandra and said, “There is nothing wrong with you; you just can’t see,” she was angry, but after some real soul-searching, she soon realized the doctor was right.

NEW NORMAL

Close your eyes for a minute and imagine yourself cycling your way to a well-toned body on a spinning bike or lifting weights to build your muscles. With your eyes still closed, picture yourself training someone without the ability to see.  Seems almost impossible, right? Not for my sister, Thandra Ritchie.

She is a fitness guru and certified trainer, a pint-sized, energetic dynamo, with a true passion for working out. Even without her sight she is confident in her capabilities. “It has given me confidence.” she said.  "You never know what curve ball life is going to throw at you and this was a doozy, but I don't think there's anything that I can't do!"

Photo of Thandra Ritchie

She reminded me confidence is the key that unlocks drive, determination, and success in us all. It’s that all-important internal thing that gives us the green light to do whatever our minds conceive, even after the perils of life send some pretty scary things our way.

For Thandra, her scare was when she started experiencing slightly blurred vision in her left eye. The doctors thought it was temporary, but her vision got progressively worse until she was blind in her left eye. Doctors at the University of Iowa Hospitals diagnosed her condition as Neuromylytisoptica or NMO, an autoimmune deficiency of the nerve, in her case, the Optic Nerve.

The attack on her right eye came later. At first doctors were able to restore some of the vision in her right eye through treatments and medication.  They attributed the fact that she could still see to her healthy lifestyle. Then, after a seven year remission, the NMO was back, causing total blindness. Her prognosis is permanent. Doctors do not expect her vision to return.

This took a toll on her.  She told me, “At first, you lose all sense of what you were. It’s hard to get out of the bed. It’s hard to get off of the couch. It’s hard to know how the world will perceive you. It’s that fear of the unknown that holds you back the most. There were so many things wrong with me that sometimes it was hard to see the good. I didn’t know what I was best at. I felt like life had passed me by.”

Accepting that her sight would not return was huge for her. She said, “You start to appreciate the things in life that you still have and the things you love to do.” After little more than a year of being blind, she sees life from a different perspective. Her blindness has become the “new normal.” It’s not anything that is so horrific or bad anymore, she confides. “It is just a characteristic of who I am. I have dark hair. I have brown eyes. I am blind. It doesn’t define me.”

NEW PURPOSE

Determined to enjoy life and do what she loves, she returned to physical fitness. For Thandra exercising was a stress reliever, a time to socialize and build relationships. At the YMCA (Y) she didn’t worry about her problems. She loved the comradery and it was the one place everyone went for a common goal: to get a good work out.

Staff and students say they are inspired by her. Melani Steckel has worked at the Y for 43 years. She said after Thandra lost her sight she was no longer able to teach Zumba, but the staff was motivated to find a place for her. Thandra currently teaches cycling and strength and toning classes at the Y in Muscatine, Iowa.

Aside from helping others stay active in the gym, Thandra also serves in a host of agencies dedicated to improving the lives of visually impaired people.  She is a member of the Board of Directors for the Illinois/Iowa Center for Independent Living, The National Federation of the Blind, the American Council of the Blind, Co-chair of the Quad-Cities Blind and Low Vision Friends, and the Iowa Council of the United Blind. She also travels nationally to attend agency conferences and workshops.

NEW VISION

It's pretty obvious she puts mind over matter to accomplish all she does.  She said, “I try to stay motivated and inspire other people. I am determined to not let myself go just because I have a disability. I am going to go into every fitness class looking the part with color-coordinated fitness attire, earrings and makeup. “

The gym is not her only love, Thandra still makes time for travel and entertainment fun.  She recently danced the night away at a Janet Jackson concert. “Music is one of my biggest motivations, you just get the vibe of the music and you know what is going on. I visualized Janet on stage with her backup singers and dancers…it’s all your imagination. It’s no different than reading a book.

One aspect of life Thandra was forced to do differently is get from place to place. She misses driving, but utilizes family and a transportation service to get around.

She approaches each day with positive affirmations and credits her faith and our close, supportive family for her stability, her will to overcome adversity and her desire to help others do the same.  She tells me. “I want to be a strong force for our family because life is going to throw you some obstacles and you will not like them, but you have to persevere and push on.”

Photo of Thandra Ritchie