July 29, 2011

WBRC Alumnus in the News with a New Career

WBRC Alumnus, Michael Malarsie, is embarking on a new career with the Air Force.  He e-mailed us with links to two news articles about his new career, which will be to provide support to newly injured air force members.  Please read on for excerpts from the two articles:

'Back to Work'
Written by Dana Bowley
Photo of Alumnus Michael Malarsie and
his family packing for the move to Texas
"Michael Malarsie is excited — about grass. The kind that grows in a lawn at a house.

Actually, Malarsie, an Air Force Senior Airman who was critically wounded and blinded in January 2010 in an IED attack in Afghanistan, is excited about a lot of things these days. Not the least of those is being able to return to work.
Malarsie, his wife, Jessie, and their two daughters, Kadence and Sophie, are moving this week to San Antonio, Texas, where he will return to active duty in a new Air Force program aimed at providing peer support early in the recovery process for wounded airmen and women.

"They'll take people who've just gone through recovery and rehabilitation and pair them with injured people who are just starting the process," Malarsie said.

The objective is to immediately give the newly wounded access to someone who knows exactly what they've been through and what to expect in the future.

"The Air Force does a good job with the wounded," he said, "and their doctors are great, but even the best of them can't know what you're going through. Only someone who has been there can do that, and that's what we'll be doing."
Malarsie said there is no doubt he could have benefitted from such a program.

"My doctors knew from a medical standpoint what I was going through," he said, "but as good as they were they couldn't know what was going on with me and what was ahead.

"By chance I connected with a couple of people who'd been through what I had, and they really helped me a lot."

The Malarsies will be living in base housing at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, at least initially, and the 23-year-old airman is fine with that.

"I'm excited to have grass," he said. "That will be a new experience for us. It'll be neat that the kids will have a backyard with grass to play in."

Their current house in Huning Ranch in Los Lunas has no grass and an undeveloped dirt backyard.

"I think the girls are going to love it," he said.  What they might not love is that they "won't know what to do without me at home all the time".  But Malarsie is definitely looking forward to returning to active duty.

"I'm very excited," he said. "You know, when I was younger I always thought it would be great being home all the time and getting paid, but I can tell you now, after (14 months) of it, it's not all it's cracked up to be.

"I miss the military lifestyle. I miss being useful."

And he's excited to be part of this program, which is so new it doesn't have a name yet.

"So many good things have happened to me," he said. "I want to share that with others."

Malarsie and others will be working with Air Force personnel who, like him, were blinded in combat. Although he'll be based in San Antonio, he'll be traveling to military hospitals around the country as needed..."

'Wounded airman helps other veterans, Moves to San Antonio to start recovery program'
Written by: Kim Vallez

"KRQE Los Lunas, NM - A Valencia county airmen blinded in Afghanistan is relocating his family to San Antonio so he can help other wounded airmen as part of a new military program.

Senior airmen Michael Malarsie is leaving his home in Valencia county and relocating to Lackland Airforce Base in San Antonio to start a program that will pair veteran wounded airmen with wounded airmen just beginning their recovery process.

Malarsie who was blinded by an IED in Afghanistan in 2009 says "The idea behind it is nobody truly understands what it is going to be like, or what to expect than somebody who's gone through it."

Malarsie has been one of the fortunate ones. Within months of coming home, Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation paired Malarsie with his seeing eye dog Xxon and he has had enormous support from people in his hometown of Bosque Farms but Malarsie says it was extremely hard when he was told for the first time he would never see again.

"I had almost no idea what to expect when I got to the blind rehab center. At Walter Reed they had a flyer of what goes on, it's like reading a pamphlet about joining the military."
Malarsie wants it to be a better experience for other veterans.
While Malarsie, his wife, two girls and dog are leaving everything they know, he says the payoff is worth it.

"I am a firm believer of pay it forward. I've been fortunate and people have taken care of me and that is what I want to do.""

July 22, 2011

Letter from WBRC Alumnus

Image of a pile of metered envelopes
We received a wonderful e-mail from a WBRC Alumnus who asked us to share his story on our blog.  Please read the following to learn more:

Hello Friends,

My name is John Martyn and I am a 100% blind veteran. I served in the Marine Corps as an Avionics Electronics Technician for Cobra and Huey helicopters. 7 years passed after I got out of the military and in August 2008 I lost my vision in a sudden accident related to a mental illness called schizophrenia. It was a rare diagnosis and there were no warning signs to prevent my total impairment of mind and body. This happened so quickly, nobody could react or know what was going on.  I woke up in the hospital not knowing what happened or what reality I was in. After a month in the hospital, and another month in the psych ward, I was released under treatment and had to start my life over.

Not only did I have to now struggle with a mental illness, but I was blind and scared out of my mind. I can't really describe the horrors I have had to face in reclaiming my life back, but I did it one step at a time. During my first month out of the hospital, as a blind man, I went to see one of the blindness coordinators at the VIST clinic to assess what I was interested in and how the VA could be of service to me during this difficult time. I didn't know what a blind person could do and was very crushed by the idea that I couldn't do much of anything at all. The days and nights were hard enough even with the support of my wife. The counselor started asking me questions on what I was interested in and I replied back with, "I don't know. What can a blind person do?" I thought not much at all without being blind since birth or at some young age. I was already resolved that my life was over. He replied back with some strange ideas of accomplishment that I thought quite useless. "There's a blind guy that climbs mountains, or this other guy that trekked across the desert with his wife," he suggested. I laughed and said, "That's all fine and good if you have a death wish, but what can a blind person really do?" I didn't know at the time, but he was new at the job and finally responded with, "Well, the sky is the limit." I grabbed a few devices to make living easier and went home disappointed. I was also scheduled to go to the Blind Rehab Center in Palo Alto, CA.

I turned what the counselor said around in my head for a few weeks. It must have been extreme boredom or just pure frustration and sick of feeling sorry for myself that made me react in a way I never have. I decided there were no rules as to what I was and wasn't capable of doing. The only thing I could reason was the sky really was the limit. I began to build my life back one task at a time. It was simple stuff at first. Make the bed, fold the laundry, put your dishes in the sink, followed by make coffee, take out the trash, and do the dishes. It was small stuff but I held onto those chores like it was the most entertaining thing I had going. I slowly began to find reasons to leave the house instead of being locked down to one place. I learned to get the mail, and go to the pool and hot tub. It stayed this way for a while. I still wasn't able to use the computer and I didn't even know how I would accomplish this task. All of my background was in programming and computers, and that was all taken away. I had to ask my wife to play music on the computer for me which made me feel all the more helpless.

I finally left for the BRC in Palo Alto, Ca to learn how to get around again. I didn't really know what I was in store for, but I had to go it alone because my wife was diagnosed with cancer a couple months before I had to leave her. Alone, scared, and next to helpless I started the training. Thankfully my sister was there on weekends to take me to her place to relax. The training was difficult at first as I had to get used to using my senses I had previously ignored for navigation. I almost left the first week because I just couldn't handle it emotionally. My wife convinced me to stay and tough it out at least for a little while. This put the program on overdrive and I had to suck up as much information in a short time. My instructor, Dave, was very understanding of what happened to me and slowly began to help me understand all the tricks and technique of navigating in such open areas. That was very scary and I felt totally exposed. Eventually, I started to get used to open areas and listening for things I never knew were there. Once I got the idea on the hospital grounds, I felt a little better about walking around and lost some of that fear of open areas. We then started navigating residential areas. It was funny because the first place he chose was a peaceful place that was suddenly overrun by work trucks and jack hammers blasting away at pavement so loud I was practically running off the sidewalk. He felt so bad and said, "I swear it wasn't like this yesterday. We'll find somewhere new." Wasn't his fault, but kind of a crash course in street navigating. He gave me my life back. Little by little he showed me how to navigate into the darkness. I eventually got so good I could even cross the busiest of intersections. I had never felt so excited, scared, and liberated before.

Many of the other classes taught me how to use my other devices in order to make my life easier. I started getting back into technology and reclaiming more of my independence. I eventually could do most everything on my own. All these skills brought me to a whole new world of accessibility.
When I returned home to help my wife battle cancer, it was a good thing I had learned to be more independent because my wife needed my help badly. I was able to show her how far I had come in such a short time. I still wasn't able to use the computer so I asked the VIST clinic if they could help. Indeed they could, and provided me with a new computer with screen reader software. I had no training with it, but remembered that you could navigate with only the keyboard when I was still a systems engineer. I could navigate a little without training but I was still unable to access my favorite programs as they were not blind accessible. I learned as much as I could and tried to click on things on the screen in a music program called Rhapsody to play music again. I finally learned to listen to a little of my old music, but it was still a chore and I was lucky if it worked at all.

I learned to be more and more independent as each day progressed. My goal was to do one new thing each day no matter how small and insignificant it seemed. After 8 or 9 months I got the invitation to go back to the Blind Rehab Center again, this time with my wife. I was excited to see what else I could learn and take advantage of. I learned with a GPS device to navigate the streets and intersections in finding my favorite places. This also enabled me to navigate school campus on my own so I could begin my degree and make a career happen again. My instructor was Laura and she was also very understanding of where I had come from. She added a huge amount of skill to navigating in really difficult areas without getting lost. It was a challenge to listen to my surroundings and then listen to a mini computer tell me more information about what is around. It doesn't tell you everything, but to use navigation skills to this extent was a miracle. My confidence grew even more and my wife was so proud of me and so thankful to the VA and their talented and caring instructors showing me the way.

During this stay, I had an old laptop that was barely working and was missing keys to connect this device to, but it was really a lost cause. My training instructor, Dan, which I had met previously during my last stay had trained me to use a new type of talking phone and other devices. He was in charge of the computers at the BRC and offered to get me a new laptop to better work with. I readily agreed and soon he gave me a new powerful laptop to work on. I began to learn more on the computer and further develop my independence with a new light. I finished training once again, and went home to use all my new and cool toys.

With the aid of many devices, I put up shelves and put together tables from IKEA all on my own. I learned to move about in my environment like never before, and was very independent. I was also going to school and navigating around on my own a bit more. There was still one thing missing though. I couldn't use the programs on the computer the way I used to and there was no possibility of doing so unless I had the program experience.

On my 31st birthday, I decided that I was going to learn how to program blind accessibility to use one of my favorite programs, Rhapsody, which is an online music subscription service with over 10 million songs. I spent months and months going to school for a degree in computers and learning to program on my own. It took me 6 months of coding to make the first accessibility script for Rhapsody, and many more months to make it available free online to others wishing to expand their lives. I got in touch with all the blind organizations out there and publicly announced its availability. I didn't know at first what I had created and didn't realize what an impact this would make for others. It was a huge success and more than a thousand users use it today. I even had an interview with a blind accessibility radio show called Main Menu talking about the script and what it means for the blind. The website can be found at www.RhapsodyBlind.com and it even features an audio tour of the script in action. This has opened up the world to online music for the blind and it is still going strong.

After completing the project for Rhapsody, I decided to get some input from others in the blind community to see what else needs to be accessible. The most requested application was iTunes, another music program that lacked a lot of functionality and ability to do what the sighted users could do. I began coding this program as well, and the project has taken off with tremendous results. In just over a month 1000 users downloaded the scripts and started making playlists, organizing their music collections, listening to internet radio stations, podcasts, and accessing new music, and being able to shop in the online store. Quite a few people are working with these jaws scripts and giving me their feedback on a regular basis so I can keep improving them and adding capabilities. There are blind music fanatics all over the world helping me find all the bugs, and we are also working on multi-language support. It's cool that everyone wants to contribute their mental energy to solve this tricky problem. iTunes is a music program that allows you to organize, buy, and sort all your music in one place. There are radio stations and many other features to the program which makes it very simple to use with the scripts. This website can be found at www.BlindTunes.net and the download is free, and there are audio demos available for both scripts.

I'm truly proud to offer these scripts, because I feel that I’ve corrected an injustice...or at least an oversight. It is my hope that people will appreciate having a more equitable experience.  I designed the scripts to be very easy to do, because the whole point of listening to music is to relax, and enjoy it. This is personal for me because music is such a powerful part of our lives, and being able to be my own jukebox was liberating after having to ask for help so many times.

These projects marked a turning point in my life, where I realized that I have the tools, skills, and determination to improve my own situation and become an innovator. There are exciting projects on my plate, and I can't wait to tackle them. My next project won't be a music player-- most likely it will have more to do with finance and bookkeeping applications. I am actually staying in this type of work because it fits me well. I have a talent with computers, so I'm going to make this world a bit easier to live in.

Thanks to all my instructors, had it not been for the new laptop that I code with, and so many of the skills I have learned, I would not be able to bring the blind community closer together in accessibility. I have had so much help in gaining my life back, and now I'm returning the favor in helping the blind become more independent. I wasn't sure the sky was the limit, but sometimes the miracle has to be the one you make yourself.

Thanks for reading,

John Martyn

And more to come...

July 13, 2011

WBRC Vets Get the Red Carpet Treatment at American Legion Blues Festival

Article by: Matthew Collins, WBRC Orientation and Mobility Specialist

Close-up image of a saxophone laying on some sheet music

On July 10th, the Half Moon Bay American Legion held their fourth annual blues festival.  The American Legion Post 474, which has been around since 1934, holds fundraisers throughout the year to help local charities and is a non-profit organization. 

WBRC Vets were treated to a number of blues acts and lunch in the chilly coastal air of the pacific.  VIP seating, an abundance of assistance, and all the hot dogs and hamburgers they could handle were just a small part of the outing.  One vet stated “It’s like we are all stars” in regards to the hospitality of the Legion Post 474.  The WBRC would like to thank all of the members of the Half Moon Bay American Legion for the great tunes and for hosting such a positive event.

July 7, 2011

VAPAHCS Palo Alto to Host Free Four Part Diabetes Workshop Series

Image of a person's hand with a finger stick and test strip
to check blood sugar levels

The VAPAHCS Palo Alto Division will be hosting a four part Diabetes Workshop Series in July and August.  These interactive workshops will include information about how to manage Diabetes and are open to all VAPAHCS Patients and Staff.  No RSVP is required and all of these Workshops are free of charge.

The Workshops will be hosted on the Palo Alto Campus at the Behavioral Medicine Clinic in Building MB3 Room # 350 on the following Mondays from 9:30-11:00 AM:

July 11
July 18
July 25
August 1

For questions, contact:
Carrie Bronars, M.A., (650)‐493‐5000 x63565 or
Arianna Gerry, M.S., (650)‐493‐5000 x62132

CLICK HERE for a link to the Workshop Flyer

July 5, 2011

VAPAHCS Website Article Reviews Recent Study Connecting TBI and Eye Injuries

VA Palo Alto Health Care System has posted an article on their website regarding a recent study involving veterans with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and resulting vision loss.  The article follows below:

Some Veterans with Traumatic Brain Injury Have Hidden Eye Injuries

Dr. Glen Cockerham examines a patient
'A recent study conducted by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) reveals the extent of internal eye injuries (closed-eye ocular injuries) among Veterans who have sustained blast-induced traumatic brain injury (TBI).  Exposure to such blasts is not uncommon in current combat and may result in open injuries to the eyes, which are diagnosed and cared for on scene; however, internal eye injuries are less apparent and may not be detected without more comprehensive examination.

This study, which was conducted from 2006-2009 and is featured in the latest issue of New England Journal of Medicine, evaluated 46 combat Veterans with documented TBI who were injured in Iraq or Afghanistan.  Dr. Glenn Cockerham, one of the lead authors, explains what led to conducting this study. "We started seeing internal eye injuries in a significant percentage of Veterans with TBI due to combat-blast exposure.  In some instances, injuries were not expected by patients."  Twenty of these Veterans, or 43 percent, were found to have internal eye injuries, with no association to TBI severity levels.  Immediate or delayed loss of vision is possible in any of these cases; three Veterans required medical or surgical intervention after examinations.

These injuries were realized only through comprehensive ocular examinations by VA ophthalmologists, prompting VA to implement a 2008 directive mandating such thorough examinations for all inpatients with TBI in rehabilitation centers.  However, many Veterans that were diagnosed with TBI or exposed to blast forces in the past and have returned to civilian life have not received such examinations and may have undetected internal eye injuries.  Most of these injuries – and their related symptoms – go undetected in standard eye exams.  In fact, among Veterans that participated in the study, vision was 20/20 or better in most of the injured eyes.  "The study by Dr. Cockerham and associates clearly shows the importance of comprehensive eye examinations for patients with blast-induced TBI," stated Dr. Mary Lawrence, Deputy Executive Director, Department of Defense/Veterans Affairs Vision Center of Excellence (VCE).

VA is advising physicians of current or former military personnel to inquire about blast exposure, and is encouraging any Veteran who may have been exposed to a blast, even those with normal visual acuity, to be evaluated by an eye care provider.  The study's findings need to be validated in a larger, more representative sample, but underscore the need for immediate ocular screenings for those Veterans who may have been affected.'