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Modesto man is learning to live well without sight

Steve Gass was not a huge fan of the “Rocky” movies, but a line from the most recent sequel has personal meaning today.

In the 2006 film “Rocky Balboa,” the over-the-hill boxer tells his son, “You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”

Blindness hasn’t been a knockout blow for Gass, who lost his sight after a medical procedure that went terribly wrong last year.

To the contrary, the 45-year-old Modesto resident is determined to live well despite his disability and help others connect with the visually impaired. He has learned quickly from people who live productive lives without their vision.

Rather than shrinking in despair, Gass and his visually impaired girlfriend are buying a home. They also are planning to take a limousine next year to the 50th annual Super Bowl in Santa Clara.

“I have never been beat down in my life, and I am not going to let it happen now,” Gass said. “I am not going to crawl into a corner.”

A year ago, Gass was sitting on an idle motorcycle in Sonora, goofing off with friends, when he lost his balance and fell to the ground. A girlfriend urged him to seek medical attention for a sore neck.

Gass said he was not worried but went to the hospital for a CT scan. To begin the procedure, a contrast material was fed into a vein, and it soon felt as though his head would explode, he said.

The technician ripped the IV from his arm, and by the time he was rushed to the emergency room, Gass was going blind. He lost his sight for seven days.

Gass had an allergic reaction to the contrast dye, which in rare cases can result in blindness or other life-threatening symptoms.

“It had gone through the protective membrane in my brain and landed in my optics,” Gass said.

He was given steroid injections for the allergic reaction, and most of his vision returned temporarily. His malpractice complaint led to a confidential settlement that prevents him from identifying the hospital and health providers.

More than four months ago, doctors told Gass he would lose his vision because of deterioration of tissue in the retinas and optic nerve. Mostly to alleviate the pain, Gass underwent a procedure in Sacramento to strip away the damaged tissue.

His eyes were dislocated and moved forward, making room for surgeons to work from the corner of each eye to clean out the bad tissue.

Although doctors had said he might have some light sensitivity, Gass was blind when he came out of surgery. The purpose of the surgery was to stop the deterioration before it worked into his brain, he said.

Gass said he’s glad he started preparing for a life without sight before total blindness set in.

When he could still see, he attended support groups at Visually Impaired Persons Support in Modesto, a nonprofit that provides mobility training; Braille and cooking classes; assistive technology training; and other services. He also befriended and learned from people such as radio announcer Marty Lanser, who taught him to find a glass of tea on a table without knocking it over and how to dip fries in ketchup when you can’t see.

“I’m told by people that I’m doing very well,” Gass said, although the disability has imposed obvious limits on a man who’s logged more than a million miles on motorcycle trips.

Last month, Gass had his first assessment at the VIPS center with Steve Rush, an orientation and mobility instructor. Wearing bandages over his eyes, which still were healing from surgery, Gass used a cane to find his way around the VIPS center on H Street with Rush’s guidance.

Leaving the center, they navigated the sidewalks and crosswalks to find the driveway marking the VIPS training office on 14th Street, a few blocks away, where Gass learned to climb the steps, find the door, get around the front desk, find the kitchen and exit, and return to the front entrance.

For the last 10 minutes of the training, Gass stood alongside H Street, listening to the nuances of traffic noise. Clients are taught that the increasing sound of traffic means they are approaching an intersection. Their feet find the bumps at some street corners that tell them to stop until it’s safe to proceed.

“Listen to how quiet that is; that is what we call ‘all clear,’” Rush told the student.

Gass knows he will need to overcome the fear of crossing streets.

“It’s scary that I could hear the traffic but I had no clue how far away the traffic was,” Gass said. “My fear was: One step too many and I am hit by a car.”

After they returned to the center, the site manager brought her friendly guide dog to Gass because she felt he looked stressed. Gass wants to complete mobility instruction and start training to have a guide dog.

“If I have a guide dog, the dog depends on me, and that makes me valuable,” he explained.

Gass met his current girlfriend, Elsa McCoy, at VIPS, and they share an apartment that he’s learned to navigate with his other senses.

He can cook a good batch of French toast in a frying pan, relying on a timer to know when to flip the toast. He started working with a cane when he could see, which allows him to take out the garbage, pick up the mail or make his way outside to feed the fish in the pond inside the compound.

He has a mental picture of the pond, with its weeping willow, a bridge, koi and a large catfish prowling the water.

When a friend takes them to the supermarket, the friend guides the front of the shopping cart as the couple hold on. Gass doesn’t mind being left alone in the produce section so he can identify the bell peppers and other vegetables by touch.

The stocky blind man keeps a sense of humor if he bumps into objects or other customers in stores. At a Walmart the other day, he held a mock sword fight with a large object that blocked his path, getting a laugh from a customer nearby.

Gass has learned a good deal from Lanser, who has been blind his whole life. Lanser was born prematurely and had too much oxygen in the incubator, scarring his retinas.

“Steve is doing well for someone who has been blind for a short time,” Lanser said. “Everybody handles this differently. I give him advice on little things. Steve has been plowing his own course and I have been a friend.”

A report for the National Interview Survey of 2012 estimated that more than 20 million people in the U.S. have some vision loss or are blind. The most common causes are diabetes, macular degeneration, injury or glaucoma, but many other diseases or conditions can rob people of sight.

Depending on their goals, people with visual disabilities may need four to five months of training, including two or three sessions a week, to learn to navigate the streets with a cane or use public transportation, said VIPS site manager Janet Gearhart.

The center serves about 340 clients a year, a number that grows as people hear of the services through word-of-mouth, she said.

Lanser, who serves on the board, sees a need for more employment opportunities for the working-age blind, who have a jobless rate around 70 percent. Lanser fears the percentage will increase because computer technology in the workplace grows faster than digital tools for the blind. The visually disabled need to use computers that talk.

Gass said he could not do without the voice functions on his Samsung phone, which help him to dial and accept calls and read email. He and Elsa opted for the descriptive narrative headphones on their first date at Regal Modesto Stadium 10 and can obtain free descriptive movies from the Library of Congress.

With the settlement, Gass has been able to make some expensive purchases. He and his girlfriend picked out a home with a swimming pool, hot tub, walk-in shower and three-car garage, and are in the process of buying it.

They need a larger place for visits from family, including his six children and her seven. It will need safety improvements and an intercom so the couple can find each other in the home, he said.

Gass said he’s arranging to donate his healthy corneas to a 17-year-old boy in Nevada who may lose his sight. The dead usually are donors for those transplants, but he’s willing to serve as a live donor, he said.

The former diesel mechanic appreciates the small gestures of those not afraid to interact with the visually impaired. On a recent visit to McHenry Bowl, some children in the next lane started to assist the visually disabled bowlers. The youngsters soon were handing them the balls with the finger holes in the right spot and helping to aim their throws at the pins.

After completing the frames, Gass gave a lesson in being a human guide to one of the boys, who helped him return the ball to the loaner racks but then excitedly ran to tell his mother.

“All of a sudden, I was standing there by myself,” Gass said with a laugh. “The mother explained to him that he needed to bring me back (to the group). The kids on their own wanted to come back next time and help us again.”

Gass acquired a Braille chess set, which has given him another idea for ways that blind people can connect with the community. He wishes there was a gathering place in Modesto for playing games.

“I know I could sit in a park with a chess set and someone will come up and play chess,” he said.

“The blind have nowhere to hang out. I want people to know that we are normal. I don’t want people to be afraid of us, and people are.”

Gass would like to resume his travels to experience some of his favorite places without his sight, such as listening to waterfalls at Yosemite or hearing the thunder at the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally in South Dakota.

Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321

Visually Impaired Person Support

  • ADDRESS: 1409 H St., corner of 14th Street, Modesto
  • CALL: 209-522-8477
  • WHAT’S OFFERED: Services for blind or visually impaired Stanislaus County residents older than 16.
  • COST: Services paid for by state Department of Rehabilitation, other government agencies.
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