A Matter of Independence

A veteran actor reflects upon the changes blindness has made in his life.

I stood in the studio where we were shooting MacGyver and rubbed my temple. I had bumped my head on a door frame, but what bothered me more than the pain was the realization that I hadn’t seen the door.

Someone rushed up. “You okay?”

I turned and smiled. “Oh, sure. Just clumsy, I guess.”

I wouldn’t admit, it but I was losing my sight. I could not even think of what blindness might entail: a life of being dependent on others. All my adult life I had taken pride in being self-sufficient, and I wasn’t about to allow that to change.

My vision problem had actually started 30 years before, when I was beginning in television in New York City. One day I got a speck of grit in my eye and went to the hospital. While I was there I learned something far more serious.

“Are you aware you have glaucoma?” asked the doctor. He gently explained that fluid pressure inside the eye can build and damage the optic nerve. “There’s no real warning until the disease is fairly advanced,” he said. “That’s why most people should be tested every two or three years, some more often.”

I was living with glaucoma, but few people knew it. For a good number of years I experienced no loss of vision. Then almost 30 years later, when I began to lose part of my field of vision, laser surgery reopened the channels that allow fluid to drain from the eyes. That seemed to work.

But two years ago, my field of vision suddenly narrowed. That’s when I began bumping into doorways. I was fast going blind, but I wasn’t going to have anybody helping me.

I found myself retreating to our garden to sit under the olive and ficus trees, and with what was left of my vision, I sought a last visual impression of the white azaleas and golden roses. How much longer would I be able to enjoy the marvels of creation? And the faces of my wife, Marianne, and our daughter and son? I fixed them in my mind so I’d always remember.

And more and more I found myself on my bicycle, riding unsteadily through our leaf-shaded streets of Santa Paula. Biking had always been my joy. I loved feeling the wind in my face with the sun on my back and the tires humming below me. I used to go riding in New York’s Central Park, and wherever we were shooting I always kept a bike on hand.

No, I kept telling myself, I must not lose my sight. I had worked too long and hard to reach this point in my profession; I wouldn’t lose everything to blindness.

Acting had been my dream since growing up on a farm near Ferndale, Michigan, where my sisters and I would go out to the barn to do our own versions of radio shows such as Fibber McGee and Molly. After college I studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater in New York, while driving an ambulance and cab for six years. Finally television and movie roles came, and in 1985 I joined the MacGyver series as Peter Thornton, boss and buddy to field agent MacGyver, played by Richard Dean Anderson. Even when not feeling well, I would awake in the morning glad to know I had something exciting to do. Sometimes it would be risky, like doing a scene on a suspension bridge, but I was normally very careful, especially while straining to see.

What would happen if the director found out I was going blind? I couldn’t think of the possibilities. The worst was having to become dependent on others. I thought nothing could be more demeaning.

Elcar with his wife, Marianne, who manages the Santa Paula Theater Center.

Then early in 1991 an ordinary milk carton brought things into focus. While sitting at our breakfast table, I picked up the container to pour milk onto my cereal. I noticed the dairy name imprinted on it and that’s when it struck me: Somewhere, someone had to get up with the sun to milk a cow. And others had to work in a dairy, drive a truck and clerk in a store before this milk got to me.

And later that morning when we stopped for gas, I watched the man fill our tank, and I thought of all those from the oil-field roustabout to the station attendant who made it possible for us to drive.

I realized I was already dependent on others. And other people depended on me. For me that thought was a cathartic experience. The milk carton and gas station were simple, mundane reminders, to be sure. But they helped make me aware of God’s unifying plan for all of us: to help one another, to respect one another and, indeed, to love one another. Wasn’t that why we were put here?

With that realization I determined to accept my blindness as the next phase of my life. Whatever happened, I would live with all the energy and forthrightness I had given my previous years.

I explained everything to the people on the show. The reaction was what I had hoped for but not necessarily what I had expected. Far from negative, it helped to clear the air. As it turned out, most of them felt something was going on with me, but they didn’t really know and shrank from mentioning it. Because of my disclosure, a new openness pervaded the set and everyone wanted to help me. Now I gladly accepted assistance, such as being guided across cables that snaked across the floor. Eventually I was learning my lines by having someone read the script to me three or four times. By acknowledging my handicap, I began to feel a new independence.

As my sight diminished, my glaucoma was written into the script, including a segment in which I had eye surgery. I wanted to share my experience so that others might benefit from it. In one scene I was in a hospital bed as MacGyver stood by my side. Neither of us spoke for a long moment. Then, looking up at him, I said, “I’ve always been independent. Now I’m going to have to live by a whole new set of rules.” I was not acting; I meant every word.

This had quite an impact on viewers. Many people wrote in saying they had been putting off their own surgery because they were afraid. “But you seem to be able to manage it,” wrote one man, “so I think I can too.” A nurse who worked with visually impaired people wrote that her patients were inspired.

Especially gratifying were letters from whole classes in schools for the blind who were listening to the programs and wrote to say how encouraged they were. On our final program of the 1991 season we listed the phone number of the National Society to Prevent Blindness, and in 24 hours they received 4,000 calls.

The inevitable day came when I lost practically all of my remaining sight. But one of my most surprising compensations is finding my other senses greatly sharpened. I still sit in my garden and “see” the azaleas through their rich scent and enjoy the trees as their leaves rustle in the breeze. When I take walks, the guiding hands of my wife or children add a warm, intimate closeness I thought I might never feel again.

My bicycle? As far as the cycling is concerned, Marianne and I are considering buying a tandem bike so that I can ride the streets of our town again—with the wind in my face, the sun on my back and the sound of the tires singing on the asphalt.

Although losing my sight was painful, I also gained a great deal. Not only a deeper appreciation of the senses I once took for granted, and companionship with others in the same situation, but, most important, a closer, more loving interdependence with my fellow human beings.

Dana Elcar,  Guideposts,  August, 1992.


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