In February, the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center welcomed a new Blind Rehab Outpatient Specialist (BROS)—Alex Smith.
Of the 170 VA Medical Centers throughout the country, there are only 95 BROS, and Charleston is fortunate to have a 10-year history of supporting blind rehab with this coordinator position. Charleston VA’s BROS covers every blind and low vision Veteran between Hinesville, Georgia and southern North Carolina and reaching just outside of the Myrtle Beach, South Carolina—that’s about 15,00 square miles.
Smith grew up in a home where his dad was legally blind. He saw his dad going through everyday life with vision impairment and using technology to help him complete everyday tasks. During Smith’s junior year of college, he recalls going with his dad, a 33-year blind rehab state employee Veteran, and one of his father’s colleagues to teach a blind man how to use his walking cane.
“All this man wanted to do was go outside and get his mail,” said Smith. “I watched them teach him the route to the mailbox. I left there knowing that I wanted to do that forever.”
A much different career path than college junior thought he’d be taking as a current Animal Sciences major.
After completing his undergraduate education, Smith entered a Master’s program for Orientation & Mobility for Blind Adults. During his specialized training, Smith lived in a blind rehab center for two weeks—blindfolded the entire time.
“During my stay at the blind rehab center I had to not only live with a blind fold 24/7, but I to record my feelings about what happened throughout the day too,” said Smith. “It was an intense exercise—showering, picking out my clothes, and going about every day blindfolded.”
An experience, that even though brief compared to the lifelong diagnosis of those with low vision and blindness, helped shape the understanding and compassion that Smith would bring with him throughout his future career.
Smith began his career in VA eight years ago in Tuscan, Arizona as the orientation and mobility specialist in their blind rehab center, with a focus on woodworking and technology use, and eventually transitioned to their BROS position, before transferring to Charleston.
Charleston VA does not house a blind rehab center, so Smith describes his position as a “mobile blind rehab center.” Anything they learn at VA blind rehab centers, he can support when they return; and for those who cannot travel to the blind rehab centers in West Palm Beach, Florida, Birmingham, Alabama or Augusta, Georgia, he can help them learn how to accomplish everyday tasks.
“Anything you do from the time you wake up until the time you go to bed—that’s what I’m here to help our Veterans do,” Smith describes.
Smith’s training gave him a unique skill set specializing in assisting Veterans with technology, something not all BROS are proficient in. Once Veterans receive their initial instruction at the blind rehab center, Smith can help with troubleshooting and refresher instruction for iPhones, computers, software and other devices.
Most of the time Smith will be on-the-road, helping Veterans with in-home mobility training. With nearly 450 Veterans currently enrolled in Charleston’s blind rehab program, Smith has his sights set on increasing the number of Veterans BROS can support by educating fellow clinicians on what types of care he can provide to improve the Veterans’ overall quality of life.
If you are a patient or clinician who would like assistance from BROS, you can reach Alex Smith at Charles.Smith3@va.gov or (843) 577-5011 ext. 7575.