Feb 24, 2020

Blind But Not Broken

Beacon Stories

This is a father’s story on the night that changed his and his family’s life forever.

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Ken and Shaela at a diner.

Ken Warkentin with his daughter, Shaela

March 8, 2011, was just another Tuesday in Fresno, California, for Ken Warkentin and his family. His daughter Shaela had soccer practice, and then youth group at church. His oldest daughter, Karissa, also attended the youth group and planned to drive her sister Shaela home at the end of the night.

Around 10:00 p.m., Ken thought it was getting late, so he texted Shaela urging her to get home soon. Ken’s wife, Lisa, was working swing shifts at the time and didn’t get home until after 11:30 p.m. It was 11:00 p.m. when a call came in. Ken answered the phone and heard what he thought was laughter, quickly realizing it was Karissa’s best friend Lindsay on the other end. Ken asked what had happened and Lindsay said they were in a car accident. Ken asked if everyone was okay and Lindsay said that Shaela had some blood on her mouth. He thought to himself, “Oh, she just has a fat lip or something.” Then he heard a scream in the background and knew something was wrong.

The location of the crash wasn’t far from their home and when he arrived, he saw a sea of red flashing lights and emergency vehicles. He was in disbelief that this was all for his daughter’s car. When he got to Karissa and Lindsay he asked where Shaela was, and they said she was still in the car. Ken started running toward the car and a first responder stopped him from getting too close, “Sir, I can’t let you go. It doesn’t look good.” Those were the first words that pierced him.

“I didn’t know what that meant,” Ken said. “I just figured she was pinned in the car. Why would he say it doesn’t look good?” He was trying to make sense of those words when he was told they were doing everything they could to get her out.

Shaela had been partially ejected out of the rear windshield.   She was sent face down into the roof of the car. She was suspended there, with the side of the roof imbedded in her face. First responders didn’t think she had survived the crash.

Focus on what we have and not what we don’t have.

Ken and Sheala Warkentin

Ken stood by and watched the responders as they attempted to get his daughter out. About 45 minutes later, he watched as they laid a sheet down on the ground next to the car.

“I knew sheets were usually used to cover up bodies,” Ken thought to himself as he watched everything happening. A few moments later, he saw a gurney being wheeled from the side of the car where the sheet was laid, now draped over the gurney. That was the moment Ken thought she was dead.

“I’ve seen enough TV shows to know when the body is completely draped with a cloth that it signifies they’re deceased,” said Ken. It was a surreal moment for him, thinking he just lost a daughter. Then, a first responder ran up to him and their last update was, “She’s going to be fine!” Those words made no sense to him; his knees buckled from the surge of emotion and someone had to catch him from collapsing onto the ground. Ken rode with Karissa and Lindsay in an ambulance to the hospital, arriving shortly after Shaela was transported and rushed into an operating room. The doctors let Ken see Shaela before she went into surgery and they told him that they couldn’t save one eye, but they thought they might be able to save the other. “Those were the second words that pierced my soul,” Ken said, thinking of his daughter not having an eye and being partially blind.

Shaela with her guide dog

Shaela Warkentin with her guide dog

After Shaela’s surgery, a neurosurgeon explained that she had to have a double craniectomy to relieve pressure on her brain. The area behind her eyes had been crushed so the maxillofacial surgeon put a mesh plate behind her eyes as a place holder. There was also a significant amount of brain damage and it would just take time to tell how she’d be affected by it.

The neurosurgeon kept saying how badly Shaela had been hurt and Ken asked several times if there was any hope. The doctor finally said that there might be a little bit of hope that she could be “normal.” Ken said that was all he needed to hear – that there was hope. Three days later that they noticed Shaela’s posture had improved and it was a sign that she was going to be okay.

Both of Shaela’s eyes were significantly damaged. Unfortunately, most hospitals lack the proper equipment to handle eye trauma. The doctors weren’t even concerned about her vision, though, they were just concerned about her survival. Ken hopes to someday advocate for hospitals to have the equipment necessary to deal with trauma in the eyes.

After spending eight weeks in the hospital, Shaela was transferred to Valley Children’s Hospital for rehabilitation. They thought she’d be there for a few months, but she was only there for two weeks before being able to go home and continue healing.  

While in the children’s hospital, the executive director of the Valley Center for the Blind reached out and invited them to a two week-long day camp being held at the center. When they arrived, it was a bleak first impression. The facility was very outdated and the inside was dark. There were only two people in the camp, Shaela, and a young man about two years younger than her. The director asked, “Okay, what do you guys want to do?” Ken was floored. He thought there would be some sort of agenda but apparently not. The whole experience left both Ken and Lisa brokenhearted.

“Fresno isn’t a small town,” Ken said. “And this is what they have for blindness? It just seemed pathetic.”

Later that summer, the executive director called Ken and told him there was a position on the board and asked if he was interested. Ken jumped at the chance to be able to help the center. It only took him two meetings to realize the center was in complete disarray and needed more help than he thought. By his third meeting, Ken was made the interim executive director. During that time, he used his experience as a small business to run a financial audit and figured out there was hope for the agency after all. On April 1, 2012, Ken officially became the permanent executive director. Ken found hope for the Valley Center for the Blind and turned it into an excellent resource for families trying to help their blind and visually impaired loved ones.

Shaela is now 24 years old and in the process of finishing her doctorate degree. She still has her moments of frustration, often caused by the lack of empathy from professors, or not receiving accessible documents, and other challenges from not being able to see. Ken lets her have her moments, “Sometimes we all just need a good cry, to vent, to get it out of our system. Then we just shake it off and we say okay pity party over. And now we pull up our bootstraps and we prove to everybody who doesn’t think we can that we can.” It’s still a journey for Shaela, but she realizes that she must keep fighting. She must keep moving forward. Through rehabilitation and today, Ken and Shaela have held onto the mantra, “Focus on what we have and not what we don’t have.”