Totally Blind Veteran Conducts a Cooking Demo: Meatloaf and Chicken Salad Are on the Menu

VA Maryland Health Care system’s Visual Impairment Services Team helps Veterans losing their vision or if it's already gone to continue to live independent lives

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A little more than a decade ago, Air Force Veteran Eugene Brown, now 75, held a well-paying position in a bank, a job he loved. He’d driven a company car and set his own schedule, balancing office time with visiting customers in the field.

That was before glaucoma crept up on him, robbing him of some of his vision. “At that time and before I started with functional loss, my vision could always be corrected to 20/20. Then it couldn’t, and I had to stop driving. Quitting that job was hard, but I had to do it,” Brown said.

Because of his diminishing vision, Brown had to find a new way to work and live. He signed on with a local organization that serves people with vision impairment to pursue a new career and received training in the food industry to become a manager of any kind of eatery. “This program required those of us interested in management in that field to take cooking classes, even though we wouldn’t be doing the cooking. We had to know the work of all our employees to better manage them,” he said. He and several others, also learning to adjust to increasingly low levels of vision, attended cooking classes at Anne Arundel County Community College. “I enjoyed that,” he said.

Although Brown went on to manage the commissary at the Fallon federal building, a position that did not require cooking, he continued cooking at home. Now totally blind and a participant of VA Maryland Health Care System’s Visual Impairment Services Team (VIST) program, Brown conducted a virtual cooking demonstration from his home that was virtually done in real time to show fellow Veterans that being totally blind does not mean complete dependence on others. In fact, Brown routinely cooks meals for his wife and himself.

The goal of this cooking demo was to inspire other visually impaired Veterans to get back into the kitchen and use new skills to compensate.

On the menu for the cooking demonstration Brown chose to show how to make a beef and chicken mix meatloaf and a chicken salad. He used a small food processor to chop onions and an air fryer to cook the meat loaf, the fryer was equipped with tactile bump dots as a tactile cue to compensate for vision loss. The raised bumps, the timer, and other tools, such as a Magic Knife are among the many tools that VA provides through the VIST and blind rehab program.

“You have to be organized,” Brown said, showing fellow Veterans all the ingredients arranged in a row in order of use. He kept a small container of bleach water situated in the sink where he could frequently rinse a cloth used to keep the surfaces around him and the ingredients clean and explained the importance of hand hygiene and avoiding cross contamination while cooking.

Brown, wearing gloves and a chef hat, offered a few strategies for Veterans struggling with various levels of vision loss, including substituting Stove Stop Stuffing for bread in the meatloaf recipe and  a packet of dried soup seasoning rather than needing to use individual spice containers. He added salsa to the loaf before combining all the ingredients with his gloved hands. He formed the meatloaf into a roll on a sheet of aluminum foil, wrapping it into the foil before inserting it into the air fryer where it would cook for nearly an hour. He used a large-number timer with tactile markings to alert him when the cooking time has been reached.

About six Veterans attended the demonstration in the Dennis Auditorium at the Baltimore VA Medical Center and another handful joined virtually. The level of vision impairment can vary, according to Bill Lange, Blind Rehabilitation Outpatient Specialist (BROS). “Some Veterans with glaucoma can see more than others, and in some cases, the glaucoma can progress to total blindness,” he said. “Even with treatment, the functional loss is different for everyone.”

“We have issued a lot of liquid level indicators for pouring, colored cutting boards for contrast for cutting, and bump dots to mark appliances,” said VIST Coordinator Chana Hurvitz. “We recommend large numbered measuring cups and spoons in addition to the mini food processor that Mr. Brown used,” she said. “The goal is to foster independence and safety for visually impaired Veterans.”

Organized by Hurvitz, Brown’s cooking demonstration was offered as part of a Blind Rehab Support Group that meets monthly, an event that Veterans struggling with various levels of vision loss from low vision to legal blindness rely on and look forward to. “Sometimes you can be struggling with a problem, and then when you come to a meeting, you’ll find a few other Veterans who struggled with the same problem before you were and they have already come up with solutions,” said Vietnam era Air Force Veteran William Fisher III, who attended with his wife.

All of the Veterans present indicated they enjoyed the demonstration, saying there is always something one can learn by attending the support group.

VA Maryland Health Care system’s Visual Impairment Services Team helps Veterans who are losing their vision or whose vision has already gone to continue to live independent lives. Early treatment is critically important to prevent some common eye diseases from causing permanent vision loss or blindness.

Veterans enrolled in the VA Maryland Health Care System are encouraged to schedule an eye exam by calling the Optometry Clinics through the Surgical Scheduling Line at 410-605-7747.