Learning to live with blindness

After losing sight, woman becomes physical therapist

By Joanna Dornfeld

The Brainerd Daily Dispatch

LITTLE FALLS, Minn. -- Bunny Tabatt of Little Falls lost her sight when she was 40, forcing her back to school to learn a skill to put her children through college and pay her mortgage.

She attended the College of St. Catherine physical therapy assistant program in St. Paul and now works for St. Gabriel's Hospital in Little Falls as a physical therapist assistant.


When Tabatt's husband died suddenly in 1980, she said the stress caused her to lose what little sight she had left. She had been taking steroids for 10 years beforehand to slow the loss, but can no longer tell light from dark. Doctors have been unable to determine what caused Tabatt's blindness.

"I just look at it as God's will," she said. "It's easier to accept once it's gone."

To learn how to be a "good blind person," as Tabatt says, she spent nine months in 1982 at the Lighthouse School for the Blind in Duluth. She learned how to read Braille, walk with a white cane and use her other senses.

"It was just more difficult for me because I wasn't as tactilely sensitive," Tabatt said.

In 1983, she took general education classes at Central Lakes College in Brainerd and St. Cloud State University. The next year Tabatt traveled to the Rochester, Mich., Leader Dog Program. There she learned how to work with her first guide dog, Buff.

Eight years ago she got her current dog, Bear.

Meanwhile, Tabatt enrolled in the physical therapy assistant program at St. Catherine's in 1985. She had to travel on city buses from St. Paul to the Minneapolis clinic where she was an intern.

"Without Buff's help I wouldn't have done it," Tabatt said.


Dream job

When Tabatt graduated in 1987 she returned to Little Falls to look for a job. Her dream was to work at St. Gabriel's Hospital.

For the first six years after she graduated, Tabatt worked as a physical therapist's assistant for St. Camillus Place, a group home for 14 adults with developmental disabilities on St. Gabriel's campus.

In 1993, Tabatt was hired by the rehabilitation services department at St. Gabriel's. She administers treatment directed by the physical therapists, including massage, ultrasound and electrical stimulation and monitors patients' exercises. She meets with her patients as many as three times per week for up to six weeks or until their treatment is completed.

In 2000, Tabatt and Bear were the hospital's St. Francis Award winners. The award is for someone "who willingly serves beyond the call of duty with heart and hands and embodies the spirit and ideals of the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi."

Tabatt said she puts Braille on everything she can't tell by touch alone, including the equipment in her exam room, her clothes so they match and the food in her kitchen. Tabatt's home and work computers talk to her as she types so she can take patient notes.

"There are so many things out there for independence if you just stay open and are willing to learn," Tabatt said.

Learning to adapt


Despite the ways Tabatt has learned to adapt, she said two things remain difficult: She has trouble talking to people in large groups because sometimes she can't tell whether a person is talking to her or has walked away; and it is difficult for Tabatt to put her eye makeup on in the morning.

"Sometimes I end up looking like a raccoon," she said.

In addition to working full time, Tabatt is a representative for the Leader Dog Program. She flies across the country and speaks to Lions Clubs, which donate funds for the dogs' purchase and training.

Tabatt is a member of the American Legion, VFW and Dandee Lions -- the female Lions Club. She also volunteers for Kinship Partners, a mentor program for Little Falls youths. She has had a little sister for eight years.

Tabatt gardens in her flower bed at home. She places plastic silverware next to all the seeds so she can tell her flowers from weeds. She also hopes to return to riding motorcycles. Buff was willing to ride in the sidecar, but Bear has not gotten the hang of it yet, she said.

At 62, Tabatt isn't sure what the future holds for her. She wants to continue working until she is at least 65 or until the hospital lets her go.

"I worked so hard to get here," she said.

Tabatt wants to get national certification in massage therapy -- not needed to work in Minnesota -- to volunteer in hospices. Tabatt also has plans to go back to school to earn a master's degree.

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