Archive for Sunday, June 29, 2008

Currency redesign idea came from love, not money

June 29, 2008


Jeffrey Lovitky carries these photographs of himself and Sandra Welner, who was blind and died in 2001, with him, in Washington, on June 16. In May 2002, Lovitky sued the Treasury Department on behalf of the American Council of the Blind, arguing that its failure to design a currency that is accessible to blind people is a form of discrimination.

Jeffrey Lovitky carries these photographs of himself and Sandra Welner, who was blind and died in 2001, with him, in Washington, on June 16. In May 2002, Lovitky sued the Treasury Department on behalf of the American Council of the Blind, arguing that its failure to design a currency that is accessible to blind people is a form of discrimination.

— He thinks of her every time he gazes at the painting - a blazing orange sun she drew a few years after the tragedy. It is the only splash of color in his tiny K Street office and it gives him great joy, and a stab of sorrow.

He thinks of her every time he plucks a new $5 bill from his wallet and sees the large purple numeral emblazoned in the corner. It reminds him of how he used to sort her money: $1 bills in one envelope, fives and tens in others.

And of course he thought of her last month when a federal appeals court ruled on a case that could result in the redesign of the entire U.S. currency. It was one of the great legal victories of 53-year-old attorney Jeffrey Lovitky's career, and he wishes she could have shared it.

But had she been there, it might never have happened.

For the lawsuit filed on behalf of the American Council of the Blind was never just about discrimination or changing the currency so the blind can distinguish a $1 bill from a $20.

'Here's a Sandy smile'

In his second-floor office, Lovitky sifts through a photo album. "Here's a Sandy smile," he says, plucking a picture from the page. "And here's one."

The pictures show a petite brunette nestling into his shoulder under a cherry blossom tree, playfully pushing him in an oversized beach wheelchair on the sand, clutching his arm at a black tie event at which she was receiving yet another award.

His eyes mist at the memory - Sandra Welner, the brilliant physician whose dazzling smile and tenacious spirit stole Lovitky's heart.

He found her after placing a personal ad in a Jewish newspaper. On their first date - at an Irish pub in April 1994 - he felt an instant attraction to the radiant young woman with the gentle brown eyes and tumble of dark curls.

She told him about her practice as a gynecologist, running a clinic for women with disabilities; about her parents - Holocaust survivors from Poland who had created a new life and family in Pittsburgh; about her travels all over Europe, Australia and Israel.

It was only when they were preparing to leave, when she stood unsteadily that he realized that she had difficulty walking.

Their dates were simple: walks in the park, petting horses at a stables near her Silver Spring apartment, takeout Thai dinners and occasional splurges on extravagant chocolate desserts at the Willard Hotel. Devoted news junkies, they often spent Saturday nights by the computer, Lovitky reading aloud the big stories of the day.

Gradually, he learned what had happened in those terrible days back in 1987.

She was 30, already a leading expert on fertility and women's reproductive health. She had a large circle of friends, a thriving career as a micro-surgeon and no shortage of suitors.

Traveling alone on vacation in Europe, Welner fell ill and checked herself into a hospital in Amsterdam. Her family is not certain what happened next except that she went into cardiac arrest and suffered a serious brain injury.

Welner's mother, Barbara, 81, still sobs at the shock of seeing her comatose daughter in a foreign hospital. Even if she survived, doctors said, she would be lucky to regain the ability of a 2-year-old.

"NO!" the mother cried. Not my brilliant, beautiful daughter, who played the violin so exquisitely that she was offered music scholarships in high school, who graduated from medical school at the age of 22.

Coming back to life

Back in the United States, doctors offered the same grim prognosis.

Again, the mother said no.

Instead, Barbara and Nick Welner took their child home to New Haven, Conn. They read to her. They fed her. They taught her to count, to swallow, to sit up.

It wasn't a miracle, her mother says of her daughter's steady, excruciating recovery. It came of a determination so powerful that it burst from her broken body with a force that nothing could hold back.

But there were moments that felt like miracles. The day a friend phoned from Israel, where Sandy had worked, and she began speaking in fluent Hebrew. She hadn't forgotten a word.

By the time Lovitky met her, Welner's vision was severely damaged, her hands shook, and she walked with an unsteady gait. But her speech and mind were clear. And her memory was better than ever.

Lovitky marveled at her defiance. She was so dependent on others - the stream of medical students she paid to help her read, and write and file, on strangers to help her catch a cab. And yet, Lovitky says, "she was more independent than anyone I knew."

She went skydiving in Australia, alone. She climbed the ancient historic site, Masada, overlooking the Dead Sea in Israel.

But the hardest challenge she faced was professional: being accepted back into the medical world that had once embraced her.

Dr. Alan Decherney, a leading gynecologist and obstetrician, remembers the young woman with the cane shuffling into his office at Yale University. He told her she had little chance of practicing medicine again.

Yet something about her courage moved Decherney to let her sit in with other residents and join him on patient rounds.

With Decherney's help Welner landed a job overseeing a clinic for women with disabilities at Washington Hospital Center.

"Sandy didn't just understand the complications of a disabled body," said Trish Day, one of Welner's patients who became a friend. "She understood my dream."

She designed a special examination table for disabled women - lower and more maneuverable than the standard ones. She lectured on the need for disabled woman to get regular gynecological checkups and mammograms, something some avoid because the equipment isn't adapted for them.

An accident

Then, in 1997, Welner's clinic was closed because of cutbacks. She was devastated. And yet, as she had so often done, Welner accepted reality and moved on.

She hurled herself into her work - applying for research grants, writing a book on medical care for women with disabilities, becoming a faculty member of Georgetown and Maryland University medical centers, lecturing around the country and the world.

And then, in an instant, everything stopped. It was Oct. 8, 2001. The call jolted him awake. "There's been an accident," said Welner's neighbor.

At the hospital, swathed in bandages, a breathing tube in her throat, Sandy was barely recognizable. She had third-degree burns over 70 percent of her body. But she smiled and mouthed "I love you," and blew a kiss.

She had been lighting a memorial candle for her late father, when the flame caught her nightgown. The neighbor had pulled her from the fire.

The next 13 days were blur of sadness as Lovitky and Welner's mother and brother waited, willing Sandy to survive. Surely she could again.

On Oct. 21, Lovitky whispered his last words to the woman with whom he had planned to spend his life. She died 10 minutes later. She was 42.

Celebrating Sandy's legacy

In the months after Welner's death, Lovitky felt bewildered by grief and regret.

At his darkest moment, Lovitky talked to his rabbi.

Do something good that will contribute to her memory, the rabbi told him.

And then Lovitky remembered the envelopes, how he would sort Sandy's money before she went on trips - putting the $1 bills in one envelope, the tens and twenties in others.

And he realized that there was something he could do - something that could both celebrate Welner's legacy and affect the lives of millions. Elsewhere around the world, accommodations are made for the blind - different sized notes or tactile features such as raised markings.

Why not the United States?

In May 2002, Lovitky sued the Treasury Department on behalf of the American Council of the Blind, arguing that its failure to design a currency that is accessible to blind people is a form of discrimination.

In November 2006, the court ruled in favor of the Council.

For his part, Lovitky says he feels a strange detachment about the outcome. He understands the long hours he poured into this case - all the research, all the briefs, - was never really about winning. Or about money.

It was about commemorating the spirit of the rare and beautiful woman who changed his life.


bearded_gnome 9 years, 7 months ago

welner's story is very important, and moving. however: most blind people deal with money, bills that is, more effectively than this. this particular method is a result of her being newly blinded. blind people go on to learn a folding system, or other method to track bills. *the tugging at the heartstrings doesn't change:the proposed change would cost the government and our economy (changing machines) much more than it would cost to provide every blind person in america his or her own electronic bill reader! and, it doesn't change:the National Federation ofthe Blind opposes this change in currency, quite vehemently. they are the larger, more active, organization of the blind in america. read much more on this proposed change in the currency

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