SOMERSET COUNTY—After spending decades working in the deep coal mines in Somerset County, Johnny Fritz began driving truck for Pile's Concrete Production Co. of Friedens in 2005.
The Somerset County native had no way of anticipating that two years later he would drive for the last time. It was a chance meeting with an old friend that began his journey to legal blindness in 2007.
St. Patrick's Day. Klondike is near the Village of Listie. His friend told Fritz that he was getting over the chicken pox, but his doctor told him he was past the contagious stage.
Unknowing, Fritz was sucking in the virus that would end up attacking his retinas. He must have rubbed his eyes at some time during the evening, he said. His vision in his right eye became a little blurry over the following weeks, but Fritz put it down to nothing more than a little irritation from possibly getting something in his eye. He had 20/20 vision at that time.
On April 30, 2007, that changed.
"I was on a delivery route in Johnstown when my right eye hurt and got all bloodshot. I couldn't touch the top of my eye," he said.
Fritz called his eye doctor and received an appointment two days later. The doctor immediately sent him to see a four-member team of specialists in Pittsburgh.
"The pain had left, but I still couldn't touch it," he said.
The team did not know what was the matter. They treated Fritz with lasers and injections and sent him home. He was scheduled for a follow up exam two weeks later.
"It didn't make it two weeks until it jumped into my other eye," he said.
He returned to Pittsburgh and the doctors told him he had Acute Retinal Necrosis Syndrome. The disease is caused by a virus that can lead to retinal detachment and blindness.
"It attacked my retina and closed in like a brush fire," he said.
"I was a scared man. I knew something was eating up my eye. I was seeing green (when the color he knew was red)," he said.
He spent eight days at UPMC Montefiore Hospital. The doctors tried to put out the fire, he said. The doctors told him that they were able to put out the fire, but what remained was like a lot of charred wood.
He could see well enough to drive, he said. He continued to visit an eye doctor every few days to check on the progress of the disease.
"It was a Saturday about noontime. I was waxing my truck, when my vision in my right eye went completely black. There was no pain. There was nothing. My retina had detached," he said.
The doctors operated. His eye was filled with synthetic oil to help with the process of trying to reattach his retina. He could see again, however, everything was cloudy because he was viewing the world through the oil in his eye. The oil would remained in his right eye for seven months. It would be removed, then eventually replaced to save his eyeball, but not his vision.
"I thought I was going to go back to work by the Fourth of July, not knowing that I would never work (drive) again," he said.
The Fourth of July came and went. By Aug. 30, the vision in his left eye had deteriorated. He voluntarily quit driving.
"Here is when I became angry," he said. "How was I going to work? Why was I chosen for this to happen?"
A local pastor called him weekly to see if he needed any help. He wanted to be left alone. The Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services and Somerset County Blind Center tried to help him. He went to the blind center in December 2007. He received some items like magnifiers and lights to help him cope. He was asked to participate and learn from the center's support groups and to partake in the visual services.
"I was so defiant. I did not want to associate with the other blind people. I didn't need this. I thought, I don't want this." A year passed and he developed a cataract on his left eye. He went into surgery knowing if it did not work he probably would be totally blind. It did work. His vision in the left eye improved somewhat.
"God restored my sight," he said. His eyes are now stable. He is legally blind, but he can still see out of his left eye.
The 53-year-old said the one positive thing that came out of his experience is he found Jesus Christ. Fritz's journey is more a testimony, the glory needs to go to God, he said.
The journey has not been easy. In fact, it is still difficult.
He spent nearly two years consuming beer and smoking more and more cigarettes while listening to The Bible tapes provided by a local pastor. During that time he taught adult Sunday school at a church within walking distance from his home.
He amazed himself and others by his retention of the word of God from the tapes.
Meanwhile he realized he had a problem with alcohol.
"I was hiding it. I was making excuses. I realized I was drinking from morning to night," he said. He broke out in hives and was taking anti-depression medicine. Then in 2009 he found out the hives were a result of his body going into the first stage of cirrhosis, a consequence of chronic liver disease caused by excessive alcohol consumption.
He admitted himself into the Twin Lakes Center, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility, on April 27, 2009. On the fifth day there God spoke to him, he said.
"God told me I had to cleanse myself and restitution would happen," Fritz said.
He stopped drinking alcohol. His liver has completely regenerated. He took a smokers' cessation class a few months after leaving Twin Lakes. He no longer smokes. He works for Pile's Concrete putting up funeral tents. He likes his job. He has been doing it for three years. He joins in the support groups in the blind center, and he finds joy and friends in churches and in the study of the Bible.
"Jesus Christ is my power source," he said. "This is a testimony that with the power of Jesus Christ there is hope."
His goal is to be an imitator of Christ, he said.
"I am perfectly at peace with what happened," he said. "I learned to turn to God to persevere and to keep struggling forward. We will have trials to live with and in the end we will grow from them," Fritz said.