Being able to empathize with patients is important, but to truly be able to understand the struggles that come with a particular diagnosis is unique and builds a strong bond between the Veteran and their health care worker. Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center Visual Impairment Service Team (VIST) Coordinator Vicki Stoughton lost her sight at 19 years old and understands the challenges after sight loss.
“These Veterans can be angry when they first start to lose their sight, thinking about all the things they can’t do,” said Stoughton. “Then they see me on a computer and working. They see that if I can do it, then they can do it too.”
After finishing her first round of college midterms in the spring of 1982, Stoughton noticed she was having trouble seeing the black board and things were darker than normal while driving. The doctor told her that she had a 90 percent chance of going blind in two years due to diabetic retinopathy, an eye condition that affects people with diabetes. By that August, she was totally blind.
With some encouragement from a neighbor, Stoughton completed blind rehab through the Commission for the Blind in Michigan. The next fall she reenrolled in college and went on to complete her bachelor’s degree in health education. She later earned two master’s degrees in social work and blind rehab teaching.
Stoughton started with the Veterans Health Administration in December 1992 as a blind rehab intern at the Chicago VA Medical Center after hitting obstacles when trying to gain full-time employment as a social worker with other organizations. Following the internship she worked as a blind rehab specialist at the Augusta VA Medical Center and started with Charleston VAMC in June 2008 as the VIST coordinator.
Since becoming the VIST coordinator, Stoughton has grown the program by 50 percent, increasing the total number of Veterans enrolled in the program from 300 to 450 — an exciting growth rate for a program that has been at Charleston VAMC for more than 25 years.
“These Veterans depend on me to answer the phone,” said Stoughton. “Blind Veterans call me to see how they can get into the system and I help them.”
The VIST program works to get Veterans back to where they were before their diagnosis by assisting them with the equipment and tools they need to do the activities they were doing before they lost their sight. At no cost to the Veteran, the program provides them with talking watches, talking clocks, large push button telephones, large print calendars and other types of tools to help them with daily tasks. The Charleston VIST program also works closely with West Palm Beach VAMC, Birmingham VAMC and Augusta VAMC to refer Veterans to their blind rehab centers to get more intensive life skills training and education with larger adaptive equipment.
“We’re a family–that’s what I tell each and every Veteran that walks into my office. We depend on each other,” said Stoughton.
Every three months Stoughton leads a VIST support group for the Veterans, their families and friends. The groups are held in Charleston, Savannah and Myrtle Beach to encourage these Veterans to build connections with one another and to provide education on topics ranging from updating adaptive computer programs to a better understanding of different eye diseases.
Alongside Stoughton at these groups is her husband of 22 years, Lee, who is a blind rehab specialist in Charleston VAMC’s Blind Rehab Outpatient Services program. As a sighted person, married to someone who is blind, he can provide a relatable perspective for the Veteran’s family and friends during the support groups.
“The Veterans in this program connect and support each other,” said Stoughton. “They share their skills and talents to help each other and they really do rely on one another to help them get through some of those tough ‘blind days.'”