Almost a sight for sore eyes; Film: When two operations in 1991 restored Shirl Jennings's sight, it ended 40 years of blindness. And altered his life. Now that life has been turned into the movie, 'At First Sight.'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ATLANTA -- Shirl Jennings doesn't look people in the eye when he talks to them, which is disconcerting. But he isn't being rude or shy.

He can see, all right. He just hasn't gotten used to making eye contact during a conversation. He forgets to look down, too, for curbs and chairs and other obstacles below eye level.

When he was blind, as he was for most of his 58 years, he never had to worry about such things.

"I'm so used to looking straight ahead," said the resident of Conyers, Ga. "Being blind was more easy sometimes."

Jennings is among the 20 or so people ever known to have regained their eyesight after lifelong blindness. A professional masseur, he was blind for more than 40 years until two operations in 1991 restored his sight.

His extraordinary metamorphosis made headlines at the time and was the subject of a 1995 article in the New Yorker magazine, "To See or Not See," by neurologist Oliver Sacks. His experiences also inspired the movie romance "At First Sight," starring Val Kilmer and Mira Sorvino, which opened Friday.

The movie doesn't tell Jennings' life story -- key elements have been altered, Hollywood-style. The film is set in New York instead of Atlanta, and the main characters are much younger than Jennings and his wife, Barbara, who is 51.

Yet the Jenningses say the movie is accurate on what is to them the most crucial point: For those who have learned to live without it, the gift of eyesight can be a tremendous, overwhelming burden.

When Jennings regained his sight, his doctors discovered he had lost visual memory. His eyes were functioning, yet the visual cues he was receiving seemed at odds with the sounds, smells and textures that for decades had been his means of observing the world.

Faces were meaningless blurs; airplanes flying at 30,000 feet seemed to skim inches over his head. He could not recognize a whole tree, let alone a forest.

"He knew the top and bottom separately, the trunk, the leaves," Mrs. Jennings said. "It took him six months to put a tree together."

He faced other adjustments no one had anticipated. As a YMCA masseur for 25 years, Jennings had felt secure in his familiarity with skin and hair, muscle and bone.

"He came home to me one day and growled, 'I can see the bodies I'm working on, and I don't like it!' " Mrs. Jennings laughed.

It started with illness

Born in 1940 in Bedford County, Va., Shirley Jennings was a lively toddler until age 3, when he came down with three illnesses at once: meningitis, polio and cat scratch fever.

His sickness plunged him into a coma. He emerged after two weeks with paralyzed legs and damaged eyesight. Jennings' determined 17-year-old mother got his cousins to help him relearn how to crawl and walk, a process that took two or three years.

But his eyesight continued to deteriorate. When he was 7 or 8, Jennings was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive, untreatable disease of the retina that causes blindness. By the time he was 10, he could distinguish only light from dark.

From then on, Jennings learned to live sightless. He attended the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind in Staunton, Va., and later the YMCA School of Swedish Massage.

Over the decades, he became resigned to his blindness, but that changed in the late 1980s when he heard that an old girlfriend, Barbara, had divorced her husband and returned to Atlanta.

"I called," Jennings said. "She had a beautiful, distinctive voice. After 20 years, we were right back where we were before."

In 1991, soon after they started dating, she urged Jennings to visit her family ophthalmologist.

Dr. Trevor Woodhams discovered Jennings had extremely dense cataracts, so opaque it was impossible to determine the condition of his retinas. Surprisingly, tests of the optic nerves showed they were still viable.

"He had the capacity of some vision," Woodhams said. "How much was anybody's guess."

Woodhams speculated that removing the cataracts might restore Jennings' eyesight. Jennings was hesitant, saying it was too much trouble and expense for such a small chance of return.

"But Barbara's attitude was, if there's any chance at all, let's go for it," Woodhams said.

Too much too soon

The day after surgery, Woodhams removed the eye patch. Instead of reacting with joy, Jennings was dazed. Undoubtedly he could see, but he was experiencing a tremendous sensory overload.

"I was trying to figure out what everything was," he said.

Those sensory difficulties worsened, despite a second operation several weeks later that removed the cataract from the left eye. At 20/80 or 20/100, Jennings' eyesight wasn't perfect. This didn't account, however, for his inability to visually recognize even familiar things, such as his cat, unless he touched them. Woodhams began to realize the problem was rooted in Jennings' brain, not his eyes.

Barbara Jennings' father called Sacks, whose work in neurology was well-known through his book "Awakenings," about catatonic patients who were temporarily reanimated by drug treatments. Sacks and ophthalmologist Dr. Robert Wasserman, came to Atlanta to examine Jennings.

Wasserman and Woodhams concluded that Jennings had been incorrectly diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa and speculated his initial blindness may have been caused by congenital retinal problems as well as nerve damage from his childhood bout with meningitis. The cataracts had developed later.

As for Jennings' problem distinguishing images, the doctors decided he would simply have to learn everything from the beginning, as infants do.

It had been an eventful, stressful year for Shirl and Barbara Jennings. Between his two eye operations, they were married in a big church wedding, just a few months after their reunion. His eyesight was overwhelming him, and he often reverted to his blind habits and relied on touch.

Then in February 1992, Jennings was rushed to the hospital with pneumonia, which led to respiratory failure that starved his brain of oxygen.

Despite supplemental oxygen, he periodically lost consciousness, and his sight virtually vanished. It returned to some degree as he recovered, but never near the acuity immediately after the operations.

The illness left him disabled and he lost his job.

Under his revised vision, Jennings could still identify colors, detect movement and distinguish bright lights, but he was seriously visually handicapped again.

"It was interesting and sad," remarked Woodhams. "But at the same time you felt relieved he was losing his sight," as the pressures of entering the sighted world had been too much.

Painting what he sees

In 1996, despite his failing sight, Jennings began taking painting lessons. One of his paintings, an abstract work dominated by his favorite color, blue, is featured in "At First Sight."

Jennings doesn't use a cane, but he does brush his fingertips against the wall when he walks, slowly, down the hallway of his cluttered home.

The couple have enjoyed the hoopla created by the movie, especially meeting and mingling with stars Sorvino and Kilmer. They flew to California for the movie's premiere in Los Angeles.

And Jennings has no regrets about having his cataracts removed, despite the upheaval in his life.

"I appreciate all the sight I got now," he said, smiling. "I can see the world, instead of just imagining it."

Pub Date: 1/18/99

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