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Utah doctor gives light to those headed into darkness

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SALT LAKE CITY — A farewell reception is planned Friday to honor a woman who made a career of helping people with a problem most of us can only imagine.

Imagine how different your life would be if you had to adapt to blindness or very poor vision. Dr. Julia Kleinschmidt has been guiding people into the darkness for 21 years - while at the same time giving them hope.

The simplest things, like crossing a street, are all new and potentially terrifying for people losing their vision

"It's easy to feel just overwhelmed," said Kleinschmidt, "to feel sad, to feel angry. Why me?"

Dr. Kleinschmidt doesn't exactly welcome newcomers to the world of reduced vision. But she's a reassuring voice, showing them there are ways to cope.

She encourages them to see what they can do and not focus on what they can't. She began orientation sessions for newcomers 21 years ago.

"I'm very encouraged," said patient Shirre Jensen. "I think this is a wonderful, wonderful thing that (she's) doing."

For years, Kleinschmidt has been giving patients a night at the Utah Opera. At dress rehearsals, patients get a braille program and are given the chance to handle props and costumes - feeling what they are unable to see.

It's easy to feel just overwhelmed. To feel sad, to feel angry. Why me?

–Julia Kleinschmidt

"Some of them have never been to an opera before," she said. "This is their chance to really enjoy it, despite their limitation."

Kleinschmidt leads a variety of support sessions. Bette Sims has been attending for more than 20 years.

"I just wouldn't miss it now," she said.

Sims says the sessions boost morale when she's feeling down or overwhelmed.

"It's so important to come and have Julia say that you're OK, everything is going to work out," she said.

Kleinschmidt says everything she does is for her patients, and the rewards are great.

"One of the great payoffs for me with this work is that I've been able to witness the majesty of the human spirit," she said. "People get knocked to their knees and they pull themselves up. With the right information, the right support, they do it."

Kleinschmidt figures she's helped up to 4,000 patients and their families over the years. They've ranged in age from newborn babies to 102 years old.

Her last day on the job is Friday.


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