Carmen George

Woman who lost eyesight in crash at age 15 continues to inspire

Five years after a horrific Fresno crash took her eyesight, Shaela Warkentin was greeted by a familiar voice outside Valley Center for the Blind. The occupational therapist who helped her take her first steps after the accident was standing beside her once again.

After the two young women hugged Friday evening during a grand opening for the center’s new Fresno location, Warkentin’s father called their surprise reunion a “God thing.”

“And this one was especially patient,” Ken Warkentin said of Shaina Talbot, who works at Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno. Talbot started to cry after she was shown a photo from 2011 of Shaela walking down a hospital hallway for the first time since her accident.

Most of those early weeks in the hospital are a blur to Shaela Warkentin, but she remembers the moments before the accident on March 8, 2011. She and her sister and a friend were stopped at a red light after church youth group when a truck plowed into the back of their car. The collision caused her eyes to be crushed. At first glance, one emergency responder thought she suffered life-ending injuries.

Shaela, then less than a month from her 16th birthday, would survive – and thrive.

Her recovery has been aided by services provided through Valley Center for the Blind, now located at 3417 W. Shaw Ave., and her father, who became the center’s executive director not long after his daughter’s accident. The center, established in 1973, provides services for more than 300 blind and visually impaired people each year.

Talbot often wondered what happened to the brave girl she helped five years ago. Spotting Shaela on Friday, she shared more admiration for what she’s already overcome.

“Her story is absolutely amazing,” Talbot says. “Overcoming vision loss and a traumatic brain injury and being this well-educated, eloquent girl – woman, I should say now. It just shows truly the power of will and what rehab specialists can do for somebody, and great resources like Valley Center for the Blind.”

The past five years for Warkentin have been punctuated with many triumphant moments, starting with accepting answers to some scary questions.

“I thought everything was going to go back to normal,” Warkentin says of the days following the car accident. “I thought everything was going to be the same, because I don’t think I had the full grasp or knowledge of what really happened to me, or what blindness really even was. I knew it meant you can’t see, but was it permanent? Would I be able to see tomorrow?”

She would soon learn the blindness was permanent. The next challenge: Reclaiming her independence.

During rehabilitation that continued at Valley Children’s Hospital, another therapist made her a cane out of a ski pole.

“I denied using a white cane,” Warkentin says. “I didn’t want to. But it was one of those things where you wake up one day and say, ‘OK, I’ll do it. I want to do it.’ 

In another act of bravery, she returned to Bullard High School with a cane, using it to navigate the campus her junior and senior years. She now uses it to navigate Fresno State’s campus, where she’s majoring in psychology. Warkentin wants to become a clinical psychologist so she can help people who have been through similar challenges.

During Valley Center for the Blind’s grand opening, I had a chance to experience walking blind for a few minutes with the help of Peter Porter, an orientation and mobility instructor at the center who was leading blindfolded walks. Porter taught Warkentin how to cross streets and board buses alone.

As I walked blindfolded, the smallest declines and inclines up and down curbs were suddenly mini mountains. My cane slammed into a food stand on the sidewalk. I worried I’d get hit by a car, even though Porter walked between me and traffic. (In fact, I didn’t realize I was even on the sidewalk until I ran into the food stand. I’m pretty directionally challenged.) When I took off my blindfold, I nearly walked into the path of a truck turning into the parking lot, but Porter grabbed my shoulder.

It’s a given that walking blind must be hard, but the experience gave me an even greater respect for the everyday challenges of the blind and visually impaired.

Porter knows their struggles better than most, getting to witness people like Warkentin triumph over adversity on a daily basis. He’s incredibly proud of how far she’s come.

“She’s a pretty positive girl and she loves people,” Porter says. “She’s very bright, picks things up real fast. … She’s been a great inspiration to a lot of people because of what she went through. Losing your vision very suddenly is very hard.”

Warkentin has excelled so much at using a cane that she’s on the list to receive a guide dog this summer. Olivia Ostergaard, another Valley Center for the Blind client and author of “Looking at the Unseen: My Guide Dog Journey,” shared some tips and encouragement for the 21-year-old.

“I’ve told Shaela to just be persistent,” she says. “Don’t let anybody tell you no, because you can, if you have the right techniques, the right skills. Just keep persevering because you can make it, and she’s doing really well considering her situation. We’re all so tickled that she’s going to get a dog, and that’s going to help her immensely.”

Warkentin’s Christian faith and positive spirit continue to help her grow and find her way.

“It’s definitely a process,” Warkentin says. “It’s been only five years, so I still have my moments where I think, ‘Wow, this kind of sucks.’ But honestly, I have to look back to the fact that there is nothing I can do – there is nothing I can do about it. I can’t get my eyesight back, so because of that, what am I going to do? And I think, ‘All I can do is look to the positive, look to the things I can do through it all.’

“I know with my faith, I will have sight one day, and I’m looking forward to that.”

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge

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