Blind determination: A woman who lost her sight shares her vision for a resilient future

Karen McCarthy, “In all sorts of scenarios, I found that just because you can’t do things the same, doesn’t mean you can’t do them”.

Did you know that, although many companies offer resilience training, you don’t necessarily need time away from your regular duties to enhance your capacity to deal with change and adversity? Karen McCarthy says that what’s needed is to leverage the determination that got you to where you are now: “It won’t take long for you to get strong but it will take persistence,” she advises. 

“In her 2016 book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth says that talent (our natural abilities, which include the genetic contributors to resilience) counts once while effort counts twice. What you need to put effort into is getting centered, spacious, strong, smart and supported.”  

And so it began…  

A barrister, Karen was in her fifteenth year of legal practice in 2016 when, in the course of surgery to remove a tumour from her pituitary, she suffered a traumatic brain injury and became critically ill. As doctors fought heroically to keep her alive, they warned her husband she would probably die or that, if she did survive, she would be severely disabled. They also said that the vision loss Karen was experiencing might resolve with time. But they were wrong on all counts. 

What followed was weeks in intensive care, a ward placement and a transfer to the Brain Injury Rehabilitation Unit at Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital. Karen never did recover her sight but surprised everyone when, two months later (exactly six months after sustaining the initial injury) she was well enough to be discharged home using a wheelchair. 

Conquering every obstacle 

“The first time I was discharged for the weekend to visit home was my daughter Mary’s 8th birthday,” says Karen. “Mark hadn’t told her and her sister, Ruby, I would be there so when I arrived with the other guests, they were beside themselves. Ruby described to me all the gifts Mary was given as she opened them. It still chokes me up when I think about what my little girls went through that year and how very brave they were for each other.” 

Karen says being there for her daughters provided the purpose and drive she needed to confront the difficulties that stood in her way back to a life she recognised: “When I got home, I was sleeping 16 hours a day and making my way around inside very tentatively. But once I was able to do the basics of caring for myself, I got serious about conquering every one of the obstacles in my path. Mark backed me every step of the way.” 

Suffering significant muscle wastage after six months of laying flat or being wheeled, she persisted with extensive physical therapy to regain her strength and balance, and learned to walk with a long white cane that gave her feedback on the surface ahead of her and warned of any obstacles in her path. Karen learned how to navigate public places – how and where to cross roads, and how to manage staircases and escalators – with training from Vision Australia.  

She adds: “One of the most interesting things I learned during orientation and mobility training was that I’m completely blind in my right eye. My instructor would have me look out for landmarks as I walked around and I’d always miss those on my right. With only a 30-degree field of very low-quality greyscale vision in my left eye, and none at all from my right, it was a real issue.” 

A new mantra 

In the early days, Karen found the more she clung to the old way of doing things, the less she was able to do and the more frustrated she felt. So, she came up with a new mantra: ‘Rigidity ruins resiliency. Loosen your grip. Tighten your connections.’  

Not only that, she began to recruit a team to provide support she’d never needed before – specialists and general practitioners, psychologists, occupational therapists, home modification experts, orientation and mobility instructors, adaptive technology trainers, a braille teacher, and others with vision loss and acquired brain injury.   

“I gained momentum when I got support,” she remembers. “I sought out support groups for people with disability and was struck by how widely people’s responses to their challenges varied. Some people languished without pursuing the knowledge and skills for the life they could have been living, while others clearly had a growth mindset and were thriving.”  

Karen met people whose courage and adaptive capacity blew her away and inspired her to travel interstate with a tour group and then alone, to return to work as a lawyer, and to cook, climb mountains and fly in hot air balloons.  

“I owe a great debt of gratitude to a woman with a severe vision impairment who I call ‘crash helmet Connie’ in my keynote. Connie would crack her head on the rotary clothesline every time she ventured into her own backyard – hence the crash helmet. But she flew on her own from Sydney to New York, arriving in the middle of the night and catching a taxi to her friend’s apartment.” 

It was only after Karen heard about Connie’s travel feat that she summoned up the courage to do Mary’s walk to school [left – or wherever walk to school box out is sitting] that she’d been rehearsing with her instructor for weeks. This inspires her final piece of wisdom: “Courage is contagious. Catch it. Spread it.” 

In her keynote, Karen tells the story of learning to walk to Mary’s school blind because it illustrates perfectly all the aspects of her resilience methodology: 

  • She had to be centred. All the strands of her attention were gathered up to focus because feeling scattered could have meant being hit by a car or getting impossibly lost. 
  • She was spacious. She couldn’t be distracted by self-pity or resentment that, after almost 20 years of working to become a senior lawyer, she was back learning how to cross a road. 
  • She had to prioritise getting strong. Less than six months earlier, Karen had been working with an occupational therapist just to get out of a chair and to stand and walk steadily.  
  • She had to get smart. “So many of the skills that had allowed me to operate before my injury were completely redundant,” says Karen. “I couldn’t read with my eyes so had to learn how to operate voiceover technology blind. I used to drive and now I had to walk paths I couldn’t see clearly. In all sorts of scenarios, I found that just because you can’t do things the same, doesn’t mean you can’t do them”.