Blind Mechanic

Chris Van Gelder works on a Chevrolet automatic transmission in his Hyannis shop. Mr. Van Gelder was blinded after a motorcycle crash that also resulted in his leg being amputated.

Lubricant pools at the back of a metal table as Chris Van Gelder pops a rubber ring out of a piece of a Chevrolet automatic transmission.

Mr. Van Gelder will tear down and then rebuild the transmission, although it will take him a little longer than it used to. That is, it takes him longer than when he used to be able to see.

Mr. Van Gelder can still diagnose problems with vehicles, by listening to their sounds and having employees read him the error codes spit out of the on-board computers.

The last time Mr. Van Gelder, who lives in Mashpee, could see was shortly after a car crashed into him, while he was riding his motorcycle to work.

Mr. Van Gelder said the day everything changed, June 28, 2012, he broke one of the cardinal rules for riding his motorcycle on the Cape when he left after 7 AM.

He had been driving on Route 28 behind a truck pulling a trailer, but staying back because it was throwing debris at him, he said.

The truck made a right turn at Sampsons Mill Road and as Mr. Van Gelder continued straight, a motorist struck him. Shortly thereafter he was flown to Tufts Medical Center in Boston with life-threatening injuries.

After six months sitting at home, Mr. Van Gelder went back to work, where he eventually realized he could continue to be a mechanic.

Learning how to tear down and rebuild transmissions was not easy because he had to figure out how to organize his tools and cut holes in his work bench to hold parts. Before he could even go home, he had to build back his strength.

During his lengthy hospital stay, Mr. Van Gelder went from 235 pounds to 160.

“I lost so much muscle mass,” he said. “I couldn’t hold a cellphone or brush my teeth.”

While being a blind mechanic is a feat, it is still hard for Mr. Van Gelder to get to work.

On bad weeks, he goes in once or twice. On good weeks, he may go in every day.

“If I’m not here for two to three days, I’m miserable,” Mr. Van Gelder said.

He may be miserable if he does not go into work but often the pain is too much.

“The crash has caused extreme arthritis in my hip,” he said. “I never knew the pelvic bone could cause so much pain, but I don’t like to focus on that.”

Work brought Mr. Van Gelder the sense of purpose he needed, his wife, Courtney Van Gelder, said.

“I know there was a time that Chris was deciding if he was worth it or if he was a burden,” she said.

Work brought him the sense of worth he needed.

Role Model

Mr. Van Gelder said he was getting restless after spending six months at home. So he asked his wife to bring him to the shop.

“At the beginning, I would keep quiet,” he said.

He would go a few days a week and just sit and listen.

One day, a customer came in with a very specific problem. Mr. Van Gelder asked a few questions and he figured out the problem.

The seed of the idea to do more than just diagnose problems had already been planted years before, when Mr. Van Gelder, who had his sight at the time, met Jay Blake of Centerville.

“He was dropping pistons into a drag car,” Mr. Van Gelder said.

At that time it was remarkable because Mr. Blake is/was blind.

Mr. Blake was 31 when he lost his sight, and his eyes, in 1997. A wheel and tire assembly exploded in his face.

Mr. Blake said he was working on cars within the first year after his accident.

“After I came home from the hospital, at one point, two to three weeks after being home, I found my way out to the garage,” he said. “I opened the wrench drawer and I could still tell what was in my hands. Then I opened the junk drawer and picked up a distributor nodule.”

He realized he could tell what items were by touch.

“I told myself I would learn how to do it again,” he said.

Mr. Blake now owns a drag race team and runs a 4,000-horsepower alcohol-fueled funny car.

He works on the funny car and the tractor-trailer that pulls it. Neither are the type of thing he worked on before his accident.

“If it wasn’t for Jay, I’d be two years behind,” Mr. Van Gelder said.

Although the two men may have known each other before the crash that took Mr. Van Gelder’s sight and leg, it was only after he was out of the hospital that they started talking. Once they did, they realized they have a lot in common. Now they are good friends.

“When I first started talking to Chris, I wanted encourage him—that life isn’t over. Blindness, yup, it does suck,” Mr. Blake said. “It’s not over. You can deal with this and learn, can still do what you want to do.”

Mr. Blake had been inspired by a blind man he met in Plymouth who encouraged him to continue living his life.

“It was very, very helpful to me,” Mr. Blake said. “I wanted to convey that to Chris. Life isn’t over. It ain’t easy, but it’s not over.”

Ms. Van Gelder said the two men rely on each other and, because they have similar experiences, are able to commiserate and work through problems together.

Many times it is venting frustration about sighted people who treat them like infants.

“We’re not infants, we’re adults,” Mr. Blake said.

Mr. Van Gelder said people will often open soda cans or bags of chips before handing them to him.

“I say to people, ‘I’m blind, not stupid,’” Mr. Van Gelder said.

Going Blind

After the crash, Mr. Van Gelder was flown to Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

In the past, Mr. Van Gelder had bad experiences with medical-scanning equipment because at a few inches over 6 feet, he rarely fits easily in the machines.

He said he remembered someone trying to force him into one of the machines, and it felt like he was being crushed and he started yelling.

It was a nurse performing chest compressions, who told him to be quiet because she was trying to save his life.

He later found out he had been legally dead for seven to 10 minutes.

Mr. Van Gelder was in a coma for two weeks. Only after he woke did he realize he was blind, a result of his optic nerves being starved for oxygen while he was legally dead.

Mr. Van Gelder can rebuild transmissions and diagnose problem cars. He can read his favorite genre of books, biographies, with the help of glasses that read the words on the page out loud.

He can even coach youth soccer and quips with his three sons that he is likely the only blind, one-legged youth soccer coach they will ever meet.

He cannot do many of the things required in day-to-day living.

“Each day still has a different challenge,” Ms. Van Gelder said.

Mr. Van Gelder has not paid a bill, his taxes or read his own personal or business correspondence since the crash.

“All of that fell on me,” Ms. Van Gelder said. “It’s not that much of a problem.”

She said she is now her husband’s eyes and ears. That means describing colors, objects, surroundings and things going on.

Before the crash, she spent one day a week at the shop. Now, it is much of her responsibility to run the business. She is also her husband’s caregiver.

“I’m his sole fallback for driving, and my kids are there also, so we have to know who’s going to be where,” she said.

At the house, they used to share the domestic duties. After the crash, almost everything fell onto Ms. Van Gelder’s shoulders.

“Physically, he can make the bed but he doesn’t do housework, he doesn’t mow the lawn, he can’t paint the deck,” she said. “All of that stuff that strong husbands do, that stopped. It’s been an adjustment in role-playing.”

While Mr. Van Gelder found support from Mr. Blake, Ms. Van Gelder searched online to find some kind of support group for her.

“I became a full-time caretaker,” she said. “I felt lonely. There are tons of support groups on this planet, and I was looking for another wife with a blind husband, or an amputee husband, or maybe both.”

She wanted to find someone else who understood the adversity and challenge but still has not been able to find any like-minded support groups.

She does have her family, whom she described as amazing.

Mr. Van Gelder has his own troubles with support groups. Many he has attended have elderly group members or people who have no desire to do things outside the home.

The one support group Mr. Van Gelder has found very beneficial is for those with spinal injuries. Although his own spinal injury has since healed and he can walk with his prosthetic leg, that support group has proven to be the most active.

“They’re trying to go out and continue to do things,” he said.

One of the hardest part of being blind, which is not aided by Mr. Van Gelder’s missing leg, is falling down.

“It feels like you’re falling forever,” he said.


Ms. Van Gelder said the community came through during her time of need.

Donations flowed in that kept the business afloat and allowed the family to stay with Mr. Van Gelder in Boston.

“Spending time in Boston was challenging,” Ms. Van Gelder said. “Being in the city, we had nowhere to go, nowhere to stay. Staff found us sleeping in chairs, on tables, on the floor.”

Eventually, she was able to get a cot in a closet in the hospital.

“Come September, when I had to send my kids home for school, I sent them with someone I trusted,” she said.

While she and Mr. Van Gelder were gone, the shop continued to run, for almost a year. She described the employees as family.

“Everybody stepped up,” she said.

The crash took away more than Mr. Van Gelder’s sight and his leg.

“It instantly put us on different paths,” she said. “He was at the hospital. I was doing my own thing—then boom, that day, there was no communication; that was it.”

Mrs. Van Gelder said she had to rely on doctors and nurses to tell her what was going on.

It also meant the one person she had relied on, whom she would normally lean on in times of trouble or need, was in a coma.

“It’s challenging I suppose as a wife, to see someone who’s always been your rock, who’s been so strong, to see him struggle, mentally and physically,” Ms. Van Gelder said.

Music Therapy

Mr. Van Gelder is on his fourth prosthetic leg and it is, by far, the best he has had.

He can easily lock the knee or, for times when he is in the car, he can easily remove the bottom half. It has a gyroscope, needs to be charged and there is even an app he could download for his phone to remotely lock the knee.

But a prosthetic leg is still not a real leg, and Mr. Van Gelder suffers phantom pain.

One thing does work to stop the pain, other than painkillers. He even keeps it in the office.

Mr. Van Gelder plays the guitar.

He had been learning how to play prior to the crash and took it up again after. At first, he was learning on an electric guitar but needing to always plug into an amp became too cumbersome. He has since switched to acoustic.

Either electric or acoustic, it helps ease the phantom pain he feels where his leg should be.

The first riffs he learned to play were from Pink Floyd’s song, and album, “Wish You Were Here.”

Playing the guitar has helped his dexterity.

The fretboard on most guitars has dots marking the frets.

But for Mr. Van Gelder, those colors mean nothing.

His wife used a simple solution, which she has used all around their house: a glue gun.

She placed blobs of glue where the marks should be on the guitar. She did the same thing on the microwave to mark the different buttons. The technique has been used all around their entire house.

Velcro has also proven a way to keep the toothbrush from falling to the bathroom floor.

“That way you always know where it is,” Mr. Van Gelder said.

(2) comments


My heart goes out to this family


This is an amazing and inspirational story.

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