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Blind Doc at VA Sees Patients Differently

male doctor speaking with a female patient

Dr. Tim Cordes, a psychiatrist at the Madison VA who’s been blind since childhood, has a knack for getting his patients to relax and open up.

by Tom Cramer, VA Staff Writer
Thursday, June 13, 2013

Dr. Tim Cordes, a psychiatrist at the William S. Middleton VA Hospital in Madison, Wis., has a unique way of seeing patients: he doesn’t see them at all. He’s been legally blind since early childhood.

But just because he can’t see you doesn’t mean he can’t take in vast amounts of information about you while you’re talking with him.

“He’s very calm,” said Dr. Dean Krahn, chief of psychiatry at the Madison VA. “Given that he can’t see, I think that he’s more attentive to everything you say. He picks up on a lot; he listens closely for the sound of your breathing, the tone of your voice…He senses a lot about the patient, and has a unique way of picking up on things other doctors might miss.”

The fact that he’s super smart doesn’t hurt either.

In 1998 Cordes graduated valedictorian from the University of Notre Dame, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry. He was then accepted into the MD/PhD program at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Medicine and Public Health. At that time he was one of eight people out of 200 or more of the nation’s most qualified applicants to begin the elite program, which he completed in 2007. He finished his residency in psychiatry there in 2011.

 He’s compassionate, but tough when it’s appropriate. 
— Dr. Jeff Schiffman, Madison VA

When did he first realize he wanted to be a doctor? When he was in high school? Kindergarten?

“In college, I read the book, ‘White Coat, White Cane,’ by David Hartman,” Cordes explained. “It’s about a blind doctor. I found that to be inspirational. I liked science, but I wanted to do more than just research. I wanted to do something more personal, more human. So I decided to go into medicine.”

Not just medicine, but psychiatry — with a special focus on addiction.

“In order to be the best psychiatrist I could be, I figured I needed to learn as much as I could about addiction,” Cordes explained. “Addiction is a problem with many of our Veteran patients…it can accompany post-traumatic stress disorder. When you’re traumatized, it changes you. You don’t always get ‘past’ it. But you can get through it.”

He added: “It’s one of my jobs to help Veterans work through their trauma and come out the other side of it.”

It’s a job Cordes seems to be exceptionally good at.

“There’s a lot of pressure on people with addictions,” said Dean Krahn. “They’re often told they just need to change, that they need to overcome that hurdle in their lives. And their response? They’ll say, ‘Doc, you don’t know what it’s like. It’s not a hurdle I can just overcome. It’s just too hard.’

“But you know what? They tend to say that a lot less to Tim, because they can see he’s a blind doctor, that he’s had to overcome enormous challenges to get where he is. He’s actually an inspiration to his addiction patients. It’s like his patients are thinking to themselves: ‘This guy’s been blind since he was a little kid, and now he’s a doctor. If he can do that, then I can stay sober today.’

“Obviously, Tim is a special human being,” Krahn said.