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A Donation in Honor of Pauline W. Harrell

WRBH recently acquired a set of 13 Low Vision Simulator goggles that mimic what it’s like to live with various eye diseases and degrees of blindness thanks to two very special donors, Deborah and John Roche. They asked that the donation be made in the name of Deborah’s blind grandmother, Pauline W. Harrell. The following is Pauline’s story as told by Deborah Roche.

Pauline Harrell, who's pictured here, became completely blind at the age of 21 after the removal of a brain tumor in 1939.

How wonderful it was to receive the picture of the new goggles! John and I were so honored to be able to help you accomplish that goal. Thank you for allowing us to be part of such a special project. When our friend Dan Smith approached us about making the donation, we said yes right away but requested that our donation be made in the name of my grandmother, Pauline Weaver Harrell, who was blind for most of her adult life.

This is the story of a woman of indomitable spirit, of iron will and great courage; this is the story of my grandmother…

Pauline W. Harrell, 21-year old mother of two young children, woke up in the hospital following brain surgery. She had kept her eyes shut tight on purpose, just for a minute, savoring the picture she held of those two sweet faces on the back of her eyelids. Pauline knew that when she opened them a whole new set of challenges, a whole new world, might await her, and she was scared. “Is it dark in here, Mom?” she asked. “No Honey,” replied her mother, summoning all her courage to keep from crying. “It’s a bright, new day, and thank the Lord you are still here to live it.” Pauline took a deep breath, then let it out slowly as she opened her eyes. “So Mom, tell me, please, what does the day look like to you?” How does one describe a beautiful sunshiny, summer day to a daughter who is suddenly completely blind?

Just a month before, after suffering excruciating headaches with blurred vision, doctors found Pauline had developed a large brain tumor behind her left eye that encompassed the optic nerve. The surgeons had explained that removing the whole tumor was going to be difficult and might leave her physically impaired or possibly blind. They wouldn’t know until they could actually see it. Brain surgery in 1939 was uncommon and very risky. X-ray, unlike MRI scans today, was limited to showing only contrasting material, so the surgeons couldn’t be sure exactly what tissue the tumor had invaded. What they did know, was that having brain surgery was the only option to save her life. As Pauline opened her eyes and waited for them to focus, she realized that while the surgery had saved her life, the surgeons had been forced to sever the optic nerve, and she was now totally blind. 

Pauline’s mother, my great-grandmother, Pearl Weaver, waited for the doctors to examine her daughter. They concluded that Pauline’s surgery had gone well, the tumor had been removed completely, and she did not seem to have any physically lasting effects from it, other than the blindness. They explained the surgery in detail so the family could understand that the blindness was not temporary and that Pauline would need assistance to do even the smallest acts of daily life: to choose her clothes, brush her teeth, eat her meals.

Pauline went home, and after a few weeks passed, was contacted by The Lighthouse for the Blind in West Palm Beach Florida. The people there helped her learn to adjust to living life as a blind person. Lighthouse taught her to use her other senses more, which are heightened for the blind, to read brail, then how to type in brail, to cook, to bowl, to ride a horse and even play the piano again! In 1955, after two more children had been born, her husband left. It seems life with four children and a blind wife was just too hard for him, so her now widowed mother moved in to help, and Pauline went back to school to become a medical transcriptionist. After getting her trade certification, Pauline found a job, bought her own home and raised her four children to be self-sufficient, accomplished adults. She eventually rose in her field to supervising manager of medical transcription at John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Atlantis, Florida. Then, at 59-years old, she became the first blind real estate agent in the state of Florida, passing the exam the first time!

In 1984 at 63-years old, after a bout with vertigo, Pauline was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and passed away in just six months. It was the only time I ever saw my grandmother give up on anything. I still remember her touching my face as I was growing up so she could “see” me. “Baby, tell me what that dress looks like,” she’d ask as she ran her fingertips over the fabric to “see” it. I still touch the inside of my measuring cups to feel where the fill line is when I’m cooking like my grandmother did. It’s the only way I know for sure the measurement is right. “Darlin,” she’d say to me when I’d get discouraged over some disappointment in my life, “cry it out if you need to, but then get up and get going. Nobody’s going to do for you. You have to do for yourself.”

Pauline was blind, yes, but she found fortitude inside herself to meet that challenge and to conquer it. In that, she taught her family the value of determination and persistence to accomplish anything in life, to have patience with those who are struggling, and to show kindness for those who are different. She didn’t need to see with her eyes to teach us that. Pauline lived her life fully, leading us by example because she saw clearly with her heart. 

Thank you for letting me share with you. She was a very special person to me.


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