Jen Buchanan, the new Volunteer Coordinator working out of the Brookline office of the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (MABVI), knows how important finding the right services and support can be for those losing their vision, because she’s been through it herself.
“When I first was losing some sight,” she says, “I didn’t know where to go.” When she learned about a local MABVI low vision support group in her hometown of Peabody, she decided to go. “It was really the first place I had journeyed to independently with my cane. I was early and I sat outside of the room, where I met Joanne, a member of the group. She was so welcoming and had so much experience to share that I knew I was in the right place. I absolutely love each and every one of the group members. They all have something unique to share and are eager to do so.”
After two years of attending, Jen was asked to step into the role of group leader. “I thought it was a great place to start getting back into the swing of life again. As I was becoming more involved with recruiting guest speakers and attending networking get-togethers hosted by MABVI, I just happened to say that I was thinking that It might be time that I look for a more time-consuming job.” Jen’s hard work and dedication did not go unnoticed by MABVI staff, and she was invited to apply for the position of Volunteer Coordinator in their Brookline office.
Getting to this place in her life has been a journey, however, and not one without bumps in the road.
Previously, Jen worked in the criminal justice system for 14 years. “I worked in the District Attorney’s office where I worked with first time juvenile offenders. The focus of effort was to give a youth who broke the law the skills to make better choices and an opportunity to keep their record clean.” Jen also spent time as a probation officer. “I loved this job, as some people just need a chance, support, and some direction to do the right thing.”
At age 23, Jen was diagnosed with Glaucoma after a serious head-on car accident, although doctors are still unsure if this was the cause or if it was genetic. She was treated with medications and laser surgeries until 2008, when her changing optic nerve caused her doctor to recommend a Trabectome of her left eye, which ultimately failed, at which point he suggested another surgery called a Trabeculectomy – both are designed to lower eye pressure in glaucoma patients.
“Unfortunately,” says Jen, “at some point my pressure dropped too low which caused damage to my vision in the left eye.” Doctors then recommended that she have a Trabeculectomy in her right eye. Frustrated but with few options, Jen agreed, and fortunately this time it worked.
After surgery, however, Jen continued to lose some vision and although she was continually told it was “just Glaucoma,” eventually she was referred to a neuro-ophthalmologist, who made a devastating diagnosis.
“He did an MRI and discovered that I had a tumor in my chiasm and optic nerve canals, and I was told that if I did nothing it would grow and I would lose my sight completely.
“I was given this information in the morning,” she recalls, “and while on the way home from that appointment my husband said that there was a surprise birthday party waiting for me at home. For the sake of allowing time to process this information, I pretended nothing was wrong when I got home. There were about 50 people that my amazing daughter had coordinated to come and celebrate.”
Jen had a craniotomy in 2010, which brought with it a difficult recovery. “I had incredible sensitivity when my hair moved – it felt like I was being scalped because it was that sensitive. The average lights were painful to be around, the headache felt like my brain was exploding in my forehead and behind my eyes.”
Luckily, time has helped. “After about two years I am much better. I do have some limitations like avoiding bending over or having too much cardiovascular activity.”
Jen adds, however, that “it is nothing like it was the first couple of years.” In fact, in April of 2015, Jen ran in the B.A.A. 5K on the weekend of the Boston Marathon along with her sighted guide Dr. Jen Salvo, MABVI’s Director of Optometric Services.
Currently, Jen has 20/600 vision in her left eye and 20/200+ in her right. Her vision, though, “really depends on air circulating, lighting, and the size of my blebs (the bubbles in my eyes). What I see is blur. It is as if I were opening my eyes under water; if something has enough contrast I can see it but there are no definitive edges to an object. I do not see facial expressions any more, or read like I used to, and sometimes I miss seeing an object all together unless someone tells me it’s there or I trip on it.”
For the past two years, Jen has had some help in this regard in the form of Keating, her service dog from Guiding Eyes for the Blind. Jen describes him as “sweet, mellow, and reserved,” and notes that “when he has his harness on, he is all business” and does a fantastic job of ignoring distractions to focus on keeping Jen safe.
Jen is no stranger to living with pets, either. Jen, along with her husband David and their son Ryan, not only share their Peabody home with Keating, but also another dog named Lucy, three cats – Tubby, Origami, and Shenanigans – and a gecko named Leo.
With Keating by her side, Jen doesn’t let her vision loss prevent her from excelling in her current role as MABVI’s Volunteer Coordinator working out of their Brookline office. In this position Jen works on a team that recruits, trains, and places volunteers with individuals with visual impairment in their community to help them with assorted tasks, such as shopping, reading mail, or paying bills.
“I love the MABVI team,” she says. “Their outlook on the future and the good that they do is energizing and inspiring. I love the philosophy of MABVI, which is all about empowering people who have a visual impairment. I love hearing a participant in the program give positive feedback about their match or their excitement and relief when I tell them we found them a volunteer.”
Plus, as Jen points out, she often hears that the volunteers benefit as much as if not more than the people they volunteer for. “Volunteering with MABVI provides an opportunity to break some of the barriers and misconceptions people have of those with visual impairment. This program starts with education through training on sighted guide, which is something people can take away with them and apply it if the circumstances arise in any community or country. Often times we get college students who take the training just to learn.”
Jen sees this benefit as extending to the community at large: “Really, the bottom line is education is the key to everything. Education changes fear, which I believe is the greatest barrier for people with visual impairment. This program creates the opportunity for people to be socially responsible and aware of others in the community. Each person who is trained makes a difference, whether it is educating someone they come in contact with or offering assistance to someone in the community.”
In the end, says Jen, it comes down to one simple truth: “Whether you have disability or not, people need people.“
Interested in making a difference in someone’s life by lending your sight as a volunteer? Learn more and apply online here: http://www.mabcommunity.org/mabvi/volunteer.html