Student sets sights on future

Legally blind student sees things differently

Sam McCurry couldn’t shake his headaches as a 15-year-old boy living in Chaska, Minn. Advil and Tylenol didn’t take the edge off. Only by chewing on coffee beans and drinking Mountain Dew by the bottle did the headaches seem to subside. It was only after numerous doctors’ visits that McCurry learned he had a large tumor that had been growing inside his head for the past decade of his life. “I turned 15 and got my learner’s permit,” McCurry said. “I started driving and something just felt horribly wrong. I didn’t realize it but at that point I couldn’t see out of my right eye.”

McCurry’s migraine headaches were also induced by a case of Hydrocephalus, the swelling of vesicles in the back of his head.

“I had no depth perception,” he said. “My brain was compensating and putting everything in my right eye that I wasn’t seeing.”

Now 23 years old and a junior at UMD, McCurry does not become offended whether you call him visually impaired or disabled. The fact of the matter is that McCurry is legally blind. McCurry owns a pair of custom-made goggles that help show others what he sees. The blacked out lenses of the swimming goggles shut off all access to light and a small plastic funnel is attached over the left eye.

To get an idea of what this is like, close your right and left eye completely. Now, squint with your left eye as if you were peering into a small telescope. The fuzzy straw-size view that you experience is what McCurry sees day to day.

“The CAT scan led to an MRI the same day, which right after led me to (the) children’s hospital for another scan, to brain surgery the following Saturday,” McCurry said.

“The doctors figured the tumor had been growing for at least 10 to 12 years by the time it was discovered.” McCurry underwent various surgeries to remove the benign tumor. Doctors began by inserting a shunt—tubing within the body that moves fluids from one area to another to alleviate the swelling due to the Hydrocephalus. A round of radiation therapy and three additional surgeries due to complications would follow before McCurry could begin to adjust to his “new vision.”

“Life kind of returned to normal except the fact that I was now blind,” McCurry said as he chuckled.

McCurry started wearing different glasses, learning Braille and purchasing new computer software that helped him see the screen better. With help from the school of visual therapists, he began the transition into his new life. McCurry admits his social life had some difficulties in the beginning.

“In high school I couldn’t drive,” he said. “Who’s going to want to get dropped off by their parents at a friend’s house to do something? I couldn’t go out and meet people easily due to my mobility.”

McCurry walks down the hall with his white cane, gently gliding on the glossy tile floor ahead of him. People move over slightly to give McCurry more room in the hallway.

“People think that because I have a white cane that I can’t see,” McCurry said. “When they find out I can ‘see,’ their perception is that I’m not really ‘blind’ then.” McCurry sought further aid by enrolling at the Light House of the Blind, a school that educates the blind or visually impaired as they transition into their new life. The center gave McCurry additional support for adjusting to life without sight.

“We provide training to individuals who have any amount of vision loss, from people being totally blind to people who have declining vision, to help them live a little bit more independently and safely,” said Executive Director for Lighthouse of the Blind Mary Junnila. “I think it’s not an exaggeration to say that miracles happen here,” Junnila said. “People walk out our doors often with very a different vision of their life that they couldn’t even think possible. … They realize that blindness does not need to stop them from pursuing their dreams and what they want to do in life.” The classes offered at the school discuss basic everyday chores, like learning how to cook, clean, and how to get around in general. McCurry enrolled at UMD in the spring of 2010.

“The Duluth Transit Authority was one benefit of going to school up here,” explained McCurry. “I remember walking around on the tour of the school and the guide explained to me that the whole school was connected through a series of tunnel systems. Never having to worry about going outside to get to a class. I’ll take that.” With help from his specially designed computer software and audio textbooks, McCurry is able to maintain a “normal” student routine. His true drive lies in his schoolwork. McCurry studies integrated elementary and special education at UMD.

“My whole life, I’ve enjoyed working within the special education programs at school,” McCurry said. “Part of that has to do with my experience I’ve gone through.” Although McCurry admits he might have more than a year left at UMD, he’s not picky when it comes to his future.

“I would be fine graduating from UMD and getting offered a job as a special education teacher,” he said. “I’d be happy about that.”


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