The blind photographer

Published 28 March 2012 13:11, Updated 28 March 2012 14:38

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When John Hoerner had a stroke, the life that he knew came to a sudden stop.

The founder of the SunRace, a race for solar and electric powered cars from Darwin to Adelaide, suddenly realised his life would never be the same. His initial stroke was followed quickly by two others. Medical staff described his prospects as “dismal”.

The strokes caused considerable damage. Hoerner permanently lost much of his sight, a heavy burden for someone who has spent a lifetime in engineering, design and the visual arts.

He had tunnel vision, which is like looking at the world through a camera lens. He also permanently lost his sense of direction, even within his own home. And he temporarily lost some of his short-term memory, although that is recovering.

The recovery was slow and difficult. Hoerner says the world looks “like a kaleidoscopic mess” but he has learnt how to scan rooms to make sense of things. His experience shows the plasticity of the brain. “I am a classic example of the brain’s ability to repair itself,” he says. “In the beginning I could hardly write; I’d had a lot of brain damage. I knew what letters were but I did not understand what they meant. But slowly I started to read again.”

Hoerner says he was aided by an unusual initiative from his wife, Alison Waters. “I taught gifted children and [realised] I could use this understanding to help John bring his scrambled brain into a simple sense of order,” she says. “By putting up the photos of our lives together on the ward, it was firing up John’s recall and memories. We all have the ability to soak up data but importantly we need to have the mental agility to discriminate between what is dross and what is worth [something].”

A chance event then dramatically offered Hoerner a new direction. A friend brought in a digital camera, thinking Hoerner would enjoy playing with it. When he looked through the lens he found that the tunnel vision disappeared; he could see normally. Although he was blind in reality, when he took photographs his sight, in effect, was restored, which gave him the opportunity to work as a “blind photographer”, taking pictures despite his impaired eyesight.

“I used to say that the thing I would most hate to lose is my sight,” he says. “If someone is all about visual perception and quality, they are the cornerstone of what gives you pleasure and what you do. Being able to find a way back from a stroke situation and develop a new career as a blind photographer has been fantastic. Because there was a time when I was sitting in hospital saying: ‘What will I do?’ ”

Stroke is the second biggest killer in Australia after coronary heart disease and a leading cause of disability, according to the Stroke Foundation. About 60,000 Australians suffer from new and recurrent strokes. One-fifth of sufferers die within a month of their first stroke. Almost 90 per cent of stroke survivors live at home and most have a disability. Almost one-fifth of strokes happen to people under 55.

Hoerner says several mistakes were made in his case, including not being taken to hospital in an ambulance. He sat in the emergency room for three hours, which may have affected the outcome. “Call an ambulance immediately – don’t even think about it. If you don’t arrive in an ambulance you are not an emergency.”

Hoerner also had what he calls a male tendency to ignore health problems. He had high blood pressure before the stroke but had not taken measures to do anything about it. He had been a smoker, although he gave up in his 30s. He put himself under too much stress, which he says is a common fault with executives. “Companies are good on diet and food but they are not good on cumulative stress, such as anger, for example.”

Hoerner says a health incident such as a stroke changes one’s sense of self. He recently had his second photographic exhibition at the Kick Gallery in Collingwood, Melbourne, but he acknowledges it’s been a long road back. “It is a bit like being inside one’s own experiment,” he says, adding that he had to change his identity. “Photography is an opportunity to become me again. We take our identity for granted.”

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