When Thurman Person makes his weekly visit on Fridays to the New York Harbor Healthcare System in New York City, stories are shared and jokes are told.
The World War II Army Veteran has been telling jokes most of his 90 years and his fellow members of the Visual Impairment Services Team (VIST) support group usually expect a hip-slapper or two, mixed in with the show business memories Thurman shares with the group.
Person honed his joke-telling and singing skills while entertaining troops during World War II. After his military service, he joined a six-man group that became famous as the premiere opening act for some of the biggest names in show business, including Ella Fitzgerald and Nat “King” Cole.
Visual Impairment Services Team coordinator connects 400 Veterans to VA services from the New York Campus.
“We even opened for Sugar ‘Ray’ Robinson. Most folks don’t know he had a career as an entertainer after he hung up his boxing gloves,” Person remembers.
A one-time member of Billy Ward and the Dominoes, Person and his group played the legendary venues such as Birdland and the lounge at the Copacabana.
“Later on, we would sing and tell jokes and get the crowds in the mood for some of the biggest rhythm and blues acts in the business. Man, we worked for a really big agency that kept us out there all the time.”
“We even did our show once for President Eisenhower,” he proudly recalls.
Person is very impressed with the treatment he receives from the VA.
“Oh, man, Stacy is great!”
Stacy is Stacy Pommer, coordinator of the Visual Impairment Services Team (VIST), who allows that Thurman is “a character.” He is just one of the 400 Veterans she helps connect to VA services from the New York Campus, with 188 of those serving during World War II.
“Thurman has been coming to the VA for seven years for his glaucoma treatment. Despite the fact that his vision continues to decrease, he remains a happy, positive guy. And that gives hope to the other Vets.”
With advanced glaucoma, Person can mostly just make out the shadows of people. In addition to participating in the weekly VIST support group meetings, he receives treatment a couple of times a month in the eye clinic at the New York Campus of the VA New York Harbor Healthcare System.
VA’s National Blind Rehabilitation Service (BRS) reports that over 157,000 Veterans in the United States are legally blind. More than a million Veterans have low vision. Those figures are expected to increase in the years ahead as more Veterans from the Korean and Vietnam conflict eras develop vision loss from age-related diseases. While there are many conditions which can lead to legal blindness, the three most prevalent age-related conditions are macular degeneration, glaucoma, and diabetic retinopathy.
As Stacy explains, “My job as VIST Coordinator is to evaluate the Veterans’ needs and then facilitate access for them to medical, ophthalmic and audiological services. The Veteran can be referred to a VA Blind Rehabilitation Center, a Continuum of Care program or a community adjustment training service.”
The VIST program educates legally blind Veterans, along with those experiencing “excess disability,” about the available health care and blind rehabilitation services. The program ensures that eligible Veterans are referred to the appropriate programs to help give them independence and confidence in their mobility, living skills and vocational goals.
VA services are available to Veterans with a wide range of vision problems from low vision to legal blindness.
If a Veteran does not meet the means test (for income level), but is legally blind, he or she is eligible for VA services after being classified as catastrophically disabled. A Veteran with low vision, not meeting criteria for legal blindness, but meeting the means test, is also eligible for VA care. Low vision Veterans not meeting the means test will not be eligible for VA services because they are not deemed catastrophically disabled.
Some of the low vision assistance available to Vets includes medical aids such as an audible prescription device which announces medication labels, talking glucometers, talking blood pressure monitors, and talking thermometers.
Low vision optical aids include monoculars for distance viewing, hand held magnifiers, optical character recognition (OCR) devices, and closed circuit televisions (CCTVs) for near-reading magnification. Other aids include adaptive computers with screen readers, talking watches, large button telephones and other living skills and mobility aids.
Born at Harlem Hospital and still a “local guy,” Thurman Person recently helped some NYU Poly Tech engineering students with their writing assignment to interview individuals with visual impairments.
Person told them to “stay consistent” in everything they do and, of course, keep a good sense of humor.