The Vision To Listen

Last Updated by Kealey Bultena on

When I hear the words “I’ll never forget” and “in Iowa City,” I fight the urge to roll my eyes. It’s not that I don’t like my grandpa’s stories. It’s just that I’ve heard them dozens of times – and that estimate may be conservative. The memories he recounts are often anchored in his teenage years, a time when he was going blind before becoming one of the youngest patients to have a corneal transplant.

I recently put together a story for SDPB with a woman who knows that two people can see because doctors were able to save her son’s corneas and transplant them. I’ve always known my grandpa had multiple corneal transplants, so it’s seemed almost routine. But this woman rightly found joy in knowing her son saved someone’s sight, and I began to consider how grateful I should be for my grandpa’s vision.

Roger Bultena says he was 13 years old when a doctor realized he had corneal dystrophy. At 15, the Lennox boy traveled to Iowa City and received a cutting-edge procedure to replace one of his corneas with one from a donor.

My grandpa agreed to let me record a conversation about his experience, but the man who talks to anyone, anywhere, speaks in a reserved fashion when I break out the microphone. Still he narrates a rare experience. I’ve heard about the sandbags that held his body still. I’ve been told about the beer a teenage Roger drank on doctors’ orders. But the oats in his ears? I guess I’d never bothered to wonder how he and his family figured out that a boy might have only a few years to see the world before it went dark.

This is not the whole story. Grandpa Roger doesn’t talk about the fact that he and his dad ran into a trucker at a stop on the way to the hospital for surgery; that man used his radio to convince other trucks to pull over so he could escort my grandpa across the prairie at top speeds. Gramps doesn’t mention how the clicking heels of a nurse drove him crazy as he lay weighted down to protect his fragile eye. He doesn’t note how much pure luck it was that his family happened to have a connection to one of the leading doctors in the field at the time. He also doesn’t detail the fact that he had a second cornea replaced as an adult in the 1970s and had each eye done one more time toward the end of the century.

The other part Grandpa Roger doesn’t mention on tape? How marvelous it is that he watched his own three boys grow up – the baby smiles, the basketball games and band concerts, the graduations. Then I came along. In one photo, Grandpa holds the two-year-old me and asks, “How big is Kealey?” You know the response. “So big!” He can see my arms stretched high into the air – proving our point then, but also proving mine now. He could see me. He could see my siblings and my cousins as we turned from toddlers to teenagers and beyond. Now he can see my little ones. What a gift – and one I’ve never bothered to consider until right this moment.

I take these stories about Iowa City and the sandbags and the beer for granted, but they’re actual pretty incredible. I may have heard my Grandpa Roger’s memories more often than I can count, but it seems it’s time for me to start listening. 

subscribe to sdpb email updates TileAd_Beatsupport_300x250.png food and cooking banner image learning blog link living blog link news and information blog link science and technology blog link sports blog link image

The Latest From SDPB Radio News

Statehouse Podcast: Big Game, Polling Restrictions, CBD, Special Ed & Wind

The House Agriculture and Natural Resources committee is working to clarify the sales on big-game animal parts...

South Dakota's New Secretary Of Public Safety

In The Moment ... January 15, 2019 Show 495 Hour 2 Craig Price has an extensive law enforcement background so it...

Washington Pavilion To Be Trampled By Turtles

In The Moment ... January 15, 2019 Show 495 Hour 2 Life is good on the open road according to Trampled by Turtles...

Understanding Mental Health Court In South Dakota

In The Moment ... January 15, 2019 Show 495 Hour 1 Last years legislative session allowed for a mental health court...

Raiding Deadwood's Bad Lands

In The Moment ... January 15, 2019 Show 495 Hour 2 Thursday 1/16/19 at noon, there's a presentation at the...

Lakota Lawmakers Respond To Trump Tweet About 'Bighorn,' 'Wounded Knee'

Two Lakota state lawmakers are reacting to a tweet by President Donald Trump over the weekend. Trump says...

Campaign Material At Polling Place Restrictions Stay

South Dakota’s restriction on campaign material in and near polling places will remain. State senators are killing a...

"Dropping The Me Project" With Author Geneen Roth

In The Moment ... January 14, 2019 Show 494 Hour 1 Geneen Roth is the author of 10 books, including the New York...

Legality Of Hemp CBD Under Scrutiny

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee will reconsider a bill that regulates cannabidiol, or CBD, a Schedule...

Resilience: The Biology Of Stress & The Science Of Hope

In The Moment ... January 14, 2019 Show 494 Hour 2 Tomorrow is children's day at the capitol. The Center for the...

The Latest from NPR News

One Of The Last Navajo Code Talkers Dies At 94

Alfred Newman served from 1943 to 1945, transmitting codes in his native tongue which prevented the Japanese from...

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand Announces 2020 Presidential Run

Gillibrand joins a growing field of Democratic candidates, telling TV host Stephen Colbert on Tuesday that she's...

Mexico's President Fights Gas Crisis, While Mexicans Endure Long Lines With Jokes

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador says his crackdown on stolen fuel is working, but long waits in several states...

Feds List What They Call Manafort Lies But Few Details Visible In Blacked Out Filing

The special counsel's office wants a judge to consider Manafort's plea agreement void after what the government...

Judge Throws Out Alabama Law That Protects Confederate Monuments

"The state has placed a thumb on the scale for a pro-confederacy message," Jefferson County Circuit Judge Michael...

Huawei Founder Denies His Firm Spies For China

In rare remarks to foreign media, Ren Zhengfei says his telecommunications equipment company is independently owned...