Seeing Possibility

Audrey and Sophie on graduation day.

Audrey Demmitt is a school nurse. Every day, she treats injured, ill and upset children. At J.C. Booth Middle School in Peachtree City, her principal, Ted Lombard, estimates that she averages 1,000 visits every month. School nurses all across the country do the same thing, but Audrey is special. Unlike most other school nurses, Audrey is severely visually impaired.

Her visual impairment has never impeded her ability to provide students with qualitycare. She does need to lean in a little closer to students and she uses assistive technology to help her complete paperwork, but she’s known for quick, accurate assessments.

“When a student walks through her door, she doesn’t even have to look at her computer,” Lombard says. “She knows the student’s name, how old he is, his medical history, everything. She also knows who his parents are and what kind of insurance they have. It makes things much faster and she’s always right on target.”

She’s also never let her physical limitations keep her from trying to improve the lives of her students. In fact, she spearheaded a fitness program that won a “Fit Kid” award from the State of Georgia. To top it off, the students love her.

They also love the new companion she’s been bringing to school for the last few months.

Sophie, a young golden retriever, is trained to assist individuals with a visual impairment. After Sophie completed her initial training, Audrey flew to Michigan for a month of team training.

Audrey calls her a miracle. Now that she has Sophie, she can do things she hasn’t done alone in years: take a walk around the block without tripping over curbs, go to the grocery, even walk home from school.

Sophie has made her presence felt around school, too. Lombard says he has been thinking about a therapy dog for the school for some time, but Sophie, even though not trained for the duty, has filled the role beautifully since her arrival.

Visual impairment doesn’t impair Audrey’s ability to care for her students

“I have a student,” Audrey explains, “who often has anxiety attacks during class. It normally takes him about a half hour to calm down. The first time he came in after I got Sophie, I let her out of her harness, which is her signal that she’s not working and can just be a regular dog. She went right to him and laid her head in his lap. Almost immediately, he began talking to her and petting her. A few minutes later, he was ready to go back to class.”

Sophie represents the second time Audrey has found new independence since moving from Indiana to Georgia. Her husband, Kevin, used to joke that he’d one day buy her a bright pink golf cart. But there isn’t really anywhere to go on a golf cart in rural Indiana. When Kevin interviewed at what was then Clayton State College, and told someone about his private joke with his wife, the person asked a question that changed Audrey’s life: “Do you know about Peachtree City?” The deal was sealed and Audrey soon had access to the one vehicle she could still drive. Eventually, though, her vision worsened again and she had to give up even the golf cart.

In fact, Audrey’s vision has worsened significantly several times since she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa in her early twenties. Since the condition usually presents in childhood, there isn’t a lot of history in terms of how it affects adults. Doctors do know that it seems to progress more slowly, but there is little consistency in that progression. For Audrey, it seems to run in eight- to ten-year cycles.

“Every year I go in and they say, ‘Well, you lost a little,’ and then every ten years or so, they say, ‘Well, this time you lost a lot.’ No one knows why,” she says.

Audrey uses assistive technology such as a keyboard with oversized characters and an enlarging monitor to make paperwork less difficult.

With each decrease in her vision has come a career change. Audrey earned her RN-BSN from the University of Arizona at Tucson 22 years ago. She began her career as a mission nurse, serving in Bolivia. Then, on a trip home, she met Kevin. Fluent in Spanish, she began nursing pregnant Hispanic teens in Phoenix. By the time she was diagnosed, she was a neonatal ICU nurse. Before long, her vision impairment, while minor at the time, was severe enough to prevent her from measuring the tiny dosages needed for her tiny patients. So she reinvented herself and began working in physician’s offices. Eventually, she moved to Booth Middle School, where she has been happily and effectively working with students for eight years. What she never did was give up.

“Did you know that only about 25 percent of visually and hearing impaired people in the United States are employed?” she asks. “Most of those are underemployed. I was encouraged to just stop working many times. But I just wasn’t going to do that.”

Now Audrey finds herself at a crossroads once again. She still feels comfortable treating students and the school and parents have campaigned to keep her, but paperwork has become increasingly difficult and she feels it will soon be time to move on. She will likely reduce her hours at the middle school to part time next year. Also under serious consideration is a return to school for a Master’s degree in counseling. Since working with families has always been her favorite part of her work, it seems a natural fit. Whatever it turns out to be, she’ll be doing something.

Audrey and Sophie at work.

Maggie Worth

Maggie Worth is a freelance writer and consultant with a PoliSci degree and 15 years in project management and marketing. An avid mystery reader, co-founder of the Southside Scribes writer's group and member of BWFC, Maggie lives in Fayetteville with her husband, Shane, and their "kid," Rowdy.

July 22, 2011