June 15, 2012
GILBERT, Ariz. – The blind Army veteran depended on his nose to lead him to the pizza joint. But his guide dog, responding to his command, entered two doors too early.
That wrong turn in the shopping center in 2004 became another turning point for the former Army captain. Tom Hicks was struggling with the loss of his eyesight, which was diagnosed in the late 1990s as retinitis pigmentosa. He was on his way to the pizza restaurant when he accidentally entered a karate school.
As he turned to leave the martial arts school, Hicks asked the instructor if he could teach a blind student. He already knew a few self defense techniques from his work as a military policeman. The instructor hesitated, then later agreed to enroll Hicks. Hicks graduated in 2009 with a black belt. Today, at 45, he holds a third-degree belt.
After he became blind, Army veteran Tom Hicks earned a black belt in karate, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and hiked the Grand Canyon. Courage, he says, is the conquest of fear. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett
Hicks is a vision counselor at Phoenix VA Health Care System in central Phoenix. He helps other veterans cope with their deteriorating eyesight. He expects to work with more veterans returning with head injuries received in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On his own time, twice a week, Hicks offers karate lessons in Gilbert, a suburb east of Phoenix. His karate school’s web site is www.blinddragonmartialarts.com. His students range in age from about 3 to 56. Despite his blindness, his instructions about karate and life help his students see how to improve their physical health and boost their self-confidence.
Hicks was in the Army from 1984 to 1997. He first worked as a military policeman and in military corrections. He also was selected for a temporary assignment as a bodyguard for the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO in Europe.
Later, Hicks’ application to Officer Candidate School was accepted. He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in field artillery. A few years later, his fading eyesight was discovered. It happened about the time Hicks was promoted to captain and enrolled in intelligence training at Fort Huachuca in southern Arizona.
Hicks was discharged from the Army in December 1997. His journey into darkness brought on by retinitis pigmentosa, or RP, was marked with many earlier clues that went unnoticed.
“It’s a progressive condition that has some pretty classic conditions,” he says. “Things like night blindness, and color vision starts to be affected. I started injuring myself frequently. People just thought I was tall and clumsy. I thought so too.”
Hicks blamed himself for bumping into open doors or chairs left pulled out from tables. He was unable to read name tags and insignias on military uniforms, especially on the camouflage or battle dress uniforms.
“There were quadrants of my vision that were just completely gone. The photoreceptor cells had died, so I was banging my head on various things, or not recognizing people after I would walk from outside light to indoors. It just took extra long for everything (to come into focus). And driving became uncomfortable.
“All these things that were really telling me, ‘You need to get your eyes checked.’ And when I’d get my eyes checked, everything would be fine because they weren’t looking for RP.”
“I hate to say this, but you’re blind.”
Eventually, the day of reckoning arrived. It happened while Hicks and other officers were jogging. Hicks was following another officer who yelled over his shoulder to Hicks to watch out for an obstacle.
“I don’t know what I thought I heard but it wasn’t what I needed to hear because when I got to where he was giving me a warning, I fell into this four-foot aquaduct. And I scraped my whole front of my body,” Hicks says.
“And as much as I was in pain, I was humiliated so I just jumped right out of there and kept running. And then I fell again. There was a barricade that said, ‘Warning – Joggers.’ It was to warn the traffic that we were out running. And I just went head over heels (over the barricade).”
“Two officers came up beside me, left and right. They grabbed me and said, ‘You’re running with us the rest of the way.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’”
When Hicks’ supervisor heard about the incident, he ordered extensive eye tests. It was likely out of disbelief, and maybe concern about a brain tumor, that the eye specialist tested Hicks several times. Finally, she spoke.
“She says, ‘Captain Hicks, I hate to say this, but you’re blind. How long has this been going on?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, six months.’
“But how do you really put a time on it because it is insidious, you don’t realize it’s happening. And so it was that kind of a thing.”
No more driving
“She said, ‘You can no longer drive. You’re done. At this time, I don’t know what to say or what to tell you. You need to go home. I’ll notify your chain of command. You’re to go nowhere. Sorry.’”
Hicks felt panic. What was in his future? How would he support his family? Then he entered that stage of ping-pong denial, arguing with himself. You are blind. I’m not blind. You’re blind. No I’m not.
“So I instantly felt like I started seeing worse when I was labeled blind, which is, I know, just psychological. But my first fear wasn’t blindness. My first fear was, how am I going to feed these kids? So my first fear was the job. How am I going to work? What I knew about blindness was, blind people are massage therapists and blind people tune pianos or they can play instruments and sing. And I can do none of that, nor was I interested in any of that. So I was a bit terrified on how I’m going to take care of my kids.”
Knocks commanding officer down
The military process of evaluating Hicks’ medical condition and processing his Army discharge took several months. One day, Hicks hurried into a building. Before his eyes adjusted from the bright daylight to the dim interior, Hicks slammed into his commanding officer, knocking him to the floor.
“And he was so mad,” Hicks says. “He just started throwing a fit. Instantly threw a fit. But he looked up, he saw it was me, he says, ‘Oh Tom, it’s you.’ So he forgave me instantly. He knew this guy’s blind, you know.”
His final days of eyesight, eye tests and stumbling into other officers were about 15 years ago. Since then, Hicks hasn’t seen the faces of his children, who now are adults. In his memory, they have children’s faces.
He hasn’t seen any more sunrises, newspapers or the newest cars, iPods or laptops. When he goes shopping with others, Hicks ignores racks of magazines and candies at checkout because he cannot see them.
Hiked Mount Kilimanjaro and Grand Canyon
Hicks walks daily with his guide dog. On Sundays, he jogs four miles with a sighted guide. Plus, he’s head instructor at his karate school in the Power Ranch community in Gilbert.
In 2009, Hicks was part of the group of visually impaired hikers from the Foundation for Blind Children in Phoenix who trekked to the 19,340-foot-high summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
A year later, Hicks and others from the Foundation hiked the Grand Canyon’s 24-mile rim-to-rim trek.
“…leave it on the mountain.”
Hicks says one of his goals in climbing Kilimanjaro was to overcome feelings of failure and humiliation and the loss of confidence that can accompany blindness.
“I just wanted to leave it on the mountain,” he says.
“This adjustment (to blindness) is daily. In the beginning, it’s a lot of panic, a lot of anxiety. You can really take things so personal, everything. I just learned that if something comes in, I just let it go. It’s no big deal.”
Hicks says climbing Mount Kilimanjaro became a life-changing event for him.
“I think what changed me, coming back from that experience, for sure, was, ‘I’m going to be okay.’ I just need training. I just need proper support. And I’ll be fine. No matter what happens, I’ll be fine.
“So I just really came to terms with the idea that I can do this. I just need solid blind skills. So that’s how I transformed. And then I just thought, ‘Man, it is so cool to get out there and make a difference, to be part of that, to motivate people in the Foundation for Blind Children.”
Courage is conquering fear
Hicks says what he left on Mount Kilimanjaro includes panic, anxiety, a fear of failure, even fear itself.
Hicks continues: “Courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s just the conquest of it. I’m afraid constantly but I won’t let it paralyze me.
“Blindness is no different. You hit the ground in the morning, the challenge starts. There’s a lot of emotion behind losing your eyesight. So much, you just can’t believe it.”
Hicks tells me about his blindness as we sit in an office at the Phoenix VA Health Care System in Phoenix. Hicks is coordinator of the Phoenix VA’s Vision Impairment Services Team. He is seated at a desk. I sit about six feet from him. Joining us is Paula Pedene, a Navy veteran who is the Phoenix VA’s public affairs officer. She has a different type of RP.
A few years ago, Pedene and Hicks formed a local group, called Veterans and Friends for Vision, to help the national Vision Walk organization raise awareness and funding for Foundation Fighting Blindness.
I ask Hicks if he can see shapes.
“Currently, to look at you, I see nothing over there,” Hicks says, motioning his left hand in my direction. “I can’t tell the difference between what you’re wearing and your flesh. You blend in with whatever’s behind you. There’s nothing. But if I scan around, I’ll pick up something. But it’s nothing that’s a detail. It’s not discernible. That’s kind of how I see. But I could never pass an eye exam. I can’t see anything on that chart whatsoever.”
RP patient numbers expected to increase
Pedene has a similar story about losing her sight, but it was due to a dominant form of RP. Hicks has a recessive type of RP. Medical groups estimate that RP affects between 50,000 and 100,000 people in the United States. Those numbers are expected to increase in relationship to the rising numbers of baby boomers and as people live longer, Pedene says.
Out of six children in Pedene’s family, “five of us have it,” she says. The difference with her form of RP is that it progresses slower. She struggled with fading eyesight for years in the Navy, where she specialized in broadcast journalism. Eventually, when she applied for officer training, she was told her eyesight was too poor. Pedene says she was told “that I really needed to let go of the Navy.”
Pedene finished her tour in the Navy Reserves. Eventually, she was told that her vision had deteriorated so much that she had to stop driving. She heard those words at a VA testing center in the Midwest. That day was 19 years ago when she was 35. She felt devastated.
“…it was a sad day. I cried…..”
“I still remember that day. And it was a sad day. I cried. I mean I cried and cried and cried. You don’t realize. Just like Tom (Hicks), you just think you’re clumsy. You’re bumping into things that people see. I often joke about the bruises I have.”
Without realizing it, she had entered what’s called a “disease of denial” in which she compensates for fading eyesight. She looked down while walking. She put out her hands to touch walls.
“You are looking down when you walk because you have no peripheral vision so you look down so you don’t fall,” Pedene says.
Geiger counter? Pogo stick?
Pedene and Hicks say it took a while to set their pride aside and begin using a white cane. Today, Pedene calls her cane her best friend. Hicks says he is surprised that some people don’t realize that many blind people use white canes.
“One time in particular, a guy said, ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he goes, ‘Is that a Geiger counter? Are you taking radon readings?’ And I say, ‘No sir, I’m blind and this is a cane.’ He goes, ‘Oh I’m sorry.’ I say, ‘You don’t have to be sorry. I’m okay. I’m accepting of it.’”
Pedene shares her own story. “Last week, I went to my niece’s recital. So I’m standing there after the recital and her little friend comes up to me and he goes, ‘How come you get to carry a pogo stick like that?’”
Hicks and Pedene praised the VA for offering counseling services and cane training. Their spouses began shouldering some of the burdens, such as driving them to and from work, to mass transit stops, and to appointments and shopping.
When his children want to show a gift to Hicks, they put his hands on the item and describe it while Hicks runs his fingers over it.
“You start to build your life around it (blindness),” Hicks says.
The blind karate instructor
It is a few minutes before 8 a.m. on a Saturday, two days before Memorial Day. About 20 youngsters dressed in black karate uniforms hustle into a community building in Power Ranch.
They drop their gym bags against the walls and step out of their sandals or jogging shoes. A few adjust the belts on their black uniform, called a gi. A few karate parents wander to chairs at the back of the room.
Students in Hicks’ karate classes range in age from 3 to 56. Total enrollment is about 60. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett
Hicks arrives and takes his place at one side of the large room. He wears a talking digital watch that he touches to hear the time. His school’s website is www.blinddragonmartialarts.com.
The barefoot students line up in two rows in front of Hicks. They sit cross-legged on the carpet. Hicks starts the class with reminders about the holiday’s roots.
He shares a quick story about an elderly blind friend he helps at the Phoenix VA. The older man is an Army veteran who survived the D-Day invasion of Normandy in World War II.
Karate boosts inner self
Hicks and the other instructors put the students through their moves. In some of the exercises, the students help each other.
After the class, I ask about the veteran who survived D-Day. “He’s got a Purple Heart and he’s got scars and a great attitude,” Hicks says. “I give the guy a talking watch and he thinks I’m a hero. But I’m like, ‘Sir, you’re the hero.’”
Hicks says martial arts helps students of all ages shed negative thoughts about themselves and improve their self images. Karate, he says, can function as an equalizer in society because it can help those who lack self confidence, who struggle with peer pressure, who have attention deficit disorder symptoms or whose shyness can attract negative attention from bullies.
Whether students are physically or developmentally disabled, blind or hearing impaired, blind instructor Tom Hicks says karate “is kind of like a place where everybody can fit in.” Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett
“We don’t mock each other,” Hicks continues. “We don’t tolerate that. So if somebody’s just not doing so well (in karate class), you’re never going to make fun of them.”
He adds that the class helps the community raise funds for disaster relief and donates it to the local Red Cross chapter.
Blindness creates new paths
Hicks says veterans facing sightlessness often experience more challenges than other blind patients because of the veterans’ training to be self-reliant.
It was his own inner drive that a few years ago encouraged Hicks to learn karate. He was on his way to visit his daughter at her new job at a Pizza Hut in a neighborhood shopping center. With his guide dog at his side, Hicks started walking down the sidewalk. He thought all he and his guide dog had to do is locate the pizza aroma and follow it to the door of the restaurant.
When Hicks smelled pizza, he commanded his dog to turn at the next door. It was the wrong door.
“I walked in and it dawned on me pretty quickly. I heard ‘Yah! Yah!’ that kind of thing. You get an idea it’s a large open space and not a pizza restaurant. So everybody rushed over to see how they can help me.”
When he was told he was inside a karate school, Hicks asked for directions to the restaurant. It was two doors away. As he turned to leave, he asked whether he could enroll for karate. He already knew basic self defense techniques from his military police training.
Learning this, the karate instructor accepted Hicks’ application.
“There are blind martial artists who have been studying their whole life, and then they lose their eyesight,” Hicks says. “But it’s pretty rare that somebody would earn a black belt who started blind. That was quite a challenge. Probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to do.”
Hicks continues. “I like the martial arts. It’s good exercise. The part I like being part of is the transformation these people take. They go from being so nervous and they have no confidence and they’re meek.
“They’re just normal people doing amazing things,” he says. “They’re just transformed. And you can apply those lessons to every part of your life.
“And I do.”
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