Jeff Henson has been riding bikes for years. In 2012, he rode a bike coast to coast across the United States. Before that, the Army veteran did a long bike ride in France, and several in the American Northwest, always on a tandem bike and always from the back seat. He was not allowed to ride on the front seat, the steering seat.
Jeff Henson was legally blind during those rides.
Henson, a native of Heflin, Alabama, who served as a demolition specialist in the Army for nine years, developed vision issues caused by arthritis and inflammation that first struck his right eye in 2000.
“I woke up one morning and I had this really bad headache,” Henson recalled. “My eye was watering so much that I couldn’t control the tears running down my face, and my head was hurting so bad I couldn’t stand for my wife to walk on the floor. Every time she took a step, I felt like my head was going to explode.”
His vision rapidly deteriorated. About a month later, the same thing happened to his left eye. In short order, Henson lost all vision in the right eye, while his left eye fell to 20/200.
“I didn’t have any vision at all,” he said. “I was at the point where I was running into doors; I couldn’t see steps and would just run into walls. It was pretty life-changing.”
Henson went through rehabilitation for the blind and received mobility training. He got a white cane and Chauncey, a service dog. And he started riding bikes. He rode with veterans groups that held rides for disabled servicemen and women. But he had to ride tandem, on the back seat.
“I always wanted to ride by myself, but of course I couldn’t,” he said.
Then in 2013, during a routine visit at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Birmingham, things changed. Henson’s physicians told him they were sending him to a special eye doctor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Carol Rosenstiel, O.D., is an optometrist who is the chief of the contact lens service in the UAB Department of Ophthalmology. Rosenstiel specializes in using contact lenses to correct severe vision issues, particularly in cases like Henson’s, where surgery or eyeglasses are not an option.
“We went through multiple trials of different contact lenses before I was able to determine that he actually had very, very good visual potential,” said Rosenstiel. “I remember asking him if he was ready for his life to change. And he said, ‘Absolutely.’”
Henson’s cornea was badly scarred from inflammation. Light entering the eye scattered and did not focus on the retina properly. Rosenstiel prescribed a hard, gas-permeable lens which created a new spherical refractive surface on the front of the eye which allowed light rays to focus accurately on the retina. It worked. Henson could see, but the hard contact on his damaged cornea hurt.
“She put the hard lens in and I could actually see the lines on my hand,” said Henson. “But it hurt so bad I couldn’t wear it. She told me don’t worry about it, she would fix that, too.”
Rosenstiel added a second contact lens, a soft lens that Henson would wear underneath the hard lens.
“We put a soft lens on the cornea first, and then placed the rigid lens on top of that,” she said. “We use that piggyback approach when the patient needs the hard lens for the optical correction, but we are unable to achieve an adequate fit and/or comfort with just the rigid lens. We use the soft lens as a bandage to help with fit and comfort.”
The two-lens combination did the trick. Henson could see, and the lenses were comfortable.
“She had told me she was going to change my life, and I thought, ‘Right, I’ve heard this before,’” said Henson. “I wasn’t expecting a whole lot, to be honest with you. But she really did change my life.”
With his contacts, Henson’s vision in his left eye is nearly normal. And now, Jeff Henson has a solo bike. With 12 other veterans with disability, he rode his solo bike from Ottawa, Canada, to Washington, D.C., in the CanAm Veterans Challenge ride from World T.E.A.M. Sports this past summer.
“The other rides were great, but I couldn’t see anything as we rode,” said Henson. “I rode across country but didn’t know what it looked like. On the CanAm ride, I was able to see everything.”
Henson dedicated the CanAm to the person who made it possible: Dr. Carol Rosenstiel.
“I call her my hero,” said Henson.
He still has a tandem bike, and he’s still going to use it. But now, he’ll be the guy in the front seat, helping a less fortunate rider.
“I think of where I came from to where I am today,” said Henson. “I’m just going to enjoy the vision I have and use it. And try to encourage other people. You could be down, but sometimes you are not out.”