Jamie Harrell's good deed left him legally blind but that didn't keep him from his love for photography
Everything speaks to Jamie Harrell now.
His phone reads text messages aloud.
His TV details —play-by-play — what’s taking place on screen.“I like it quiet,” he said.
But nothing is quiet anymore.
In the early-morning hours of Jan. 1, Jamie, 49, was driving home from being the designated driver at a New Year’s Eve party. A truck driver of seven years, he stopped to help a man with a disabled car on Interstate 84 — a decision that would ultimately cost the good Samaritan his eyesight, likely for the rest of his life.
Now Jamie and his wife, Nena, are hopeful new technology called eSight glasses can be the tool they need to help Jamie live a more independent life in their Middleton home. In January, he wants to attend Treasure Valley Community College in Caldwell to go back to school for a computer science degree since he may never be able to drive again.
But the glasses, along with thousands of dollars in related medical bills, have set the couple back.
“I went from making $1,000 a week to $1,000 a month (with Social Security),” Jamie said. “There are lots of blind people like me, who want to work, and who can work. And I’m not going to give up.”
The high temperature recorded Jan. 1 was 19 degrees, and at 1:42 a.m., it would have been even colder — a fact that may have saved Jamie’s life.
On his way home from the party, Jamie saw a disabled vehicle on westbound I-84 at milepost 31 near the airport in Caldwell.
Caldwell resident Ricardo Sanchez was traveling west when he struck the median guardrail and came to rest partially in the left lane, where he got out of his vehicle.
Jamie stopped to help, a decision he said he’d make again, even knowing what was to come.
Two other drivers swerved to avoid Sanchez’s vehicle, but Sanchez and Jamie were hit in the chaos.
Jamie had tire marks imprinted into his torso, and he was likely thrown onto the guardrail, causing a 2-inch gash in his body cavity and severe internal bleeding that may have been slowed only by the cold temperature. Paramedics estimate Jamie lost oxygen to his brain for six to eight minutes.
Sanchez died at the scene. Jamie was rushed to Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise, where he’d come to realize nothing would be quite the same again.
A NEW AWAKENING
Jamie’s last appointment with Dr. Darin Jurgensmeier was Nov. 29 at Saint Alphonsus’ Joint Preservation and Reconstruction office in Boise.
Actually, after 10 major surgeries throughout 2017, it was his last doctor appointment — period.
The doctor was thrilled by Jamie’s progress, including his ability to rotate his right arm above and behind his head, a motion much like you would to use to apply shampoo, rather than stopping just above his ear.
Jurgensmeier was at Saint Alphonsus the day Jamie was admitted. Jamie’s body was bruised and swollen, and the prognosis was far from optimistic, Jurgensmeier said.
“It didn’t look great because he had a lot of serious injuries,” the doctor said.
Jamie’s leg was broken in nine places, his lung had collapsed, his liver was lacerated, the muscles making up his right rotator cuff were badly damaged and he had a significant brain injury.
“I don’t pat myself on the back for good work,” Jamie said. “I just did what I thought necessary. I did what I had to do, like anyone would have to do, I guess … . You can sit there and feel sorry for yourself and not work on your body to get in better shape or your mind. Or you can.”
Jamie doesn’t remember much from Christmas 2016 — a week before the accident — to March 2017. Nena, who remained by Jamie’s side day-in and day-out, was one of the main reasons Jamie said he never gave up on his rehabilitation at Saint Al’s and eventually, VIBRA Hospital of Boise.
“I had a bunch of crazy, whacked-out dreams,” he said. “In a good way, she was in a lot of them, which told me a lot. Of all the people, she was in my dreams. There (were) countless times in VIBRA and Saint Alphonsus and I would wake up looking for her, yelling, ‘Nena? Nena.’ ”
When Jamie regained total consciousness, there was another challenge, something he now refers to as the dark blind.
“I whispered to Nena and whispered to the nurse, ‘I can’t see. I can’t see,’ ” he said. “I don’t know why I couldn’t say it louder, but I whispered ‘I can’t see.’ ”
Jamie has about 10 percent of his vision remaining.
While recovering in the hospital, he received a recommendation to reach out to the Idaho Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a state agency that ensures people who are legally blind have access to employment.
Jamie has worked with Jeff Weeks, a vocational rehab counselor for the commission, since this spring to receive tools he needs to adjust to the darkness surrounding him. The commission has provided life-skills classes and assistance technology to help him with everyday tasks such as cooking or using a computer.
“From day one, from where he was to where he is now, he’s pretty remarkable,” Weeks said. “He’s just been able to complete a 180, and he’s done a lot of this on his own. He’s definitely determined to obtain the life he’s had before the accident.”
After some research, Jamie decided to try the eSight glasses, Weeks said.
The glasses offer customized technology that use advanced optics and algorithms to see like a normally sighted individual. The glasses provide improvements in sharpness, contrast, readability and field of view without compromising mobility.
They don’t come cheap, and they’re not covered by insurance, Jamie said.
A donations page, similar to a GoFundMe fundraiser, has been set up online through eSight’s website. So far, it’s garnered only $2,895 of the $9,995 the Harrells hope to raise by Dec. 31 for the glasses.
“We still owe a lot of money for them,” Jamie said. “I’m not going to give up no matter what. I’m going to keep pushing forward.”
NENA AND JAMIE
Nena and Jamie are still adjusting to the new normal for their relationship.
At breakfast at a Boise IHOP, Jamie must lean forward, hovering just 2 or so inches above his spinach-and-mushroom omelet in order to see well enough to move his fork to his mouth. To pour coffee, he holds the aluminum pot steadily in one hand, cup in the other.
Nena knows to tell him “when.”
“He tries to do things himself first,” she said, watching him pour. “If there’s something he’s just not able to quite do then he has me do it. … You don’t realize until you’ve been there how much you miss when you lose any portion of your independence.”
The two actually legally divorced in 2013, although they never really stopped talking to one another.
They never parted the way traditional people do when they get divorced, Jamie said. They still said “I love you” at night. They still spent Thanksgiving and Christmas together.
They plan to remarry in the coming months to make it official again.
“This is how a relationship is supposed to be. In today’s world, everybody’s so selfish and self-centered, they forget that,” Jamie said. “That’s what really makes your life, your relationship. When you love each other that much, you’re there no matter what.”
GET BUSY LIVING
Other than having to give up riding his motorcycle, Jamie said there are few things that he’s willing to let go because of his blindness.
After the crash, he said he briefly saw a psychologist, who encouraged him to maintain as many hobbies as he could. He came across examples of other people with blindness who still did photography, efforts Jamie is proud to share on Blindman Photography on Facebook and on his Instagram account at blindmanphotography.
Jamie has a new favorite saying he uses all the time: Get busy living or get busy dying.
“And he chooses to live,” Nena said.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Jamie Harrell, who lost 90 percent of his eyesight when he was run over by a car helping another man with a disabled vehicle on Interstate 84, has raised $2,895 of $9,995 required to buy eSight glasses. The glasses, which are not covered by insurance, could help Jamie live a more independent life. To donate, go to giving.esighteyewear.com/james-harrell.