Braille Institute Anaheim student Dan Varney’s life changed drastically in 2011. The 48-year-old went in for a surgery to remove what was believed to be a small, non-cancerous brain tumor that turned out to be a softball-sized tumor, which took 19 hours to remove and forced him to be sedated for three days.

In the process of the surgery, he lost his sight.

Dan lost his sight and half his body was paralyzed when he woke up. The transition was startling and difficult for him, and his family, and he had to drastically alter his life to live with his new condition.

Braille Institute was there from the beginning.

“There was someone in the hospital from the Braille Institute in Anaheim when I woke up. My wife actually had them leave because she didn’t know why they were there until the doctor let her know I had lost my vision during the surgery,” said Dan.Dan in the process of indoor rock climbing.

Feeling eventually returned to his full body, he turned to the Braille Institute and one of their Orientation and Mobility (O&M) Specialists, Haw Yen.

Haw worked with Dan to learn how to use a white cane, how to navigate his home, how to navigate walking out in public, and put him on the course to getting a guide dog. Learning O&M skills was one of the first steps in his recovery and, Haw, an O&M Specialist with more than 30 years’ experience, was able to help him master them.

“Learning orientation and mobility skills after losing your vision is always a challenge but Dan never lost his patience and determination in learning and practicing routes,” said Haw.

However, mastering O&M is just the start of Dan’s story of orientation and mobility.

“After I lost my sight, I lost the ability to do many of the outdoor and fitness activities I loved. I started to not care about my physical fitness, and I ended up gaining weight in the years after,” said Dan.

Dealing with losing his vision, Dan was less active than he used to be for years and his weight eventually climbed to 240 pounds. He continued to adjust and learn new skills to retain the independence he had before he lost his vision, but his weight was no longer a priority.

Starting in 2017, Dan decided he was going to change that and, aided with his O&M skills, his white cane, and his guide dog, Harrison, he started walking around where he lives in La Habra, every day. Over time, he started to add more and more distance to his daily walks, up until the point where he was walking 25 miles on some days.

Dan standing with his guide dog outside on a trail.

“I usually walk between 10 and 25 miles on my walks, sometimes staying in my neighborhood and sometimes going to other cities,” said Dan.

Dan’s long walks put him on a weight loss journey that led to him losing more than 60 pounds in recent years, getting him back to the weight he was at before he lost his vision, when he was regularly doing several outdoor fitness activities. While doing this, he was also active at Braille Institute’s Anaheim Center and is part of the Center’s Men’s Group, which meets once a week, and in which he is a support to others who have also lost their vision.

Dan has also been able to keep his walks going during the COVID-19 pandemic, with only some slight adjustments.

“I always wear a mask over my face when I go on my walks now but other than that, my routine hasn’t changed much. I still go on my walks every day and have throughout the pandemic,” said Dan.

He has also been able to stay in touch with the Men’s Group throughout the pandemic, via technology.

“Our group has stayed in touch with regular online video calls the past several months, still meeting each Friday, and we are planning a lunch to get together soon,” said Dan.

While O&M skills and maintaining his impressive walking routine have been crucial in keeping Dan living life to its fullest, his family has also played a huge factor in his journey. His wife Blanca, and sons Christopher (17) and Liam (14), have helped him throughout, along with his mom and two sisters.

“Dan’s family was incredibly helpful in his progress in orientation and mobility and getting to where he is today. They walked with him a lot in his training and were there every step of the way, literally and figuratively,” said Haw.

Additionally, Dan has been an inspiration to his family.

“Dan has taken losing his eyesight with patience and humility. He makes us all strong and keeps us going. And we love that he’s brought another dog into our lives. We are eternally grateful to Braille and Haw,” said Blanca.

We are honored to tell Dan’s story here, but we believe he summed up his journey perfectly when we were talking with him so we would like to close with his words.

“Before I lost my vision, I was an avid mountain biker and rock climber. I used to ski and cross-country ski as well. While I can’t do all those things again, the O&M skills I learned from Haw have allowed me to walk the distances I do while feeing secure and independent. It has allowed me to walk my sons to and from school. I can travel by myself and meet my friends for lunch and that feels great.”

Dan posed for a pic while on a hike.

Dan’s story is perfect for Orientation & Mobility (O&M) Month, which we celebrate each October at Braille Institute, and he is just one of the thousands of people who are blind or visually impaired, who we have helped to maximize their independence through O&M training.

Visit Braille Institute’s website for more information on our Orientation and Mobility services, which are offered at each of our centers in Southern California. Contact the Braille Institute Center nearest you and ask about Orientation & Mobility, Monday – Friday, 8:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. You can call us toll-free at 1-800-BRAILLE (272-4553).