What a young blind mother taught a CEO

Carol Quinn, now a chief executive in a health organization, will never forget the lesson she learned from a young couple she cared for as a community health nurse in western Pennsylvania. With help, she learned, people can accomplish what would seem impossible.

"I had to take care of a blind couple," Quinn told me during our Leadership Agenda interview published in Monday's Philadelphia Inquirer. Quinn is the chief executive of Mercy Home Health and Mercy Life, both divisions of the Mercy Health System. "The woman got pregnant. I was doing the maternal infant care project for high risk [pregnancies.] We got a call that she was blind and her husband was blind and we had to prepare her to to take care of a baby. We had to translate regular infant care appropriate to a blind person and I learned so much from that experience."

Carol Quinn

I asked what she had learned.

"It was so incredible that it doesn’t matter about your handicap. We can give you the tools and help you because people have amazing skills. The support we were able to give her was, for example, [whether she was] going to bottle feed or breast feed." Quinn advocated breast feeding. It just might be easier. The mother didn't have to worry about formulas or measuring ounces.

"So watching this couple progress, from a nice young couple that was doing fine, being blind, to now having to take care of a child, who was sighted," she said. "We had to teach them simple things like, `It’s 5 o’clock in the afternoon in winter in Pittsburgh. You have to turn the lights on. You need to start getting used to putting on the lights.' I will always remember this case. Her mother was adamant that [her daughter] not get pregnant and not have this child and [the daughter] was adamant that she was going to do it. By the time the baby was born, the mother came to help. It was so rewarding to me."

But how, I wondered, did they clean the baby?

"You'd have to see it to believe it," Quinn said. But, Quinn said, she learned that blind people do a lot of things that may be unexpected. For example, her patient told her that she and her husband went bowling on Thursday nights. "I said, `OK , how do they do this?' But it is amazing what they can do."

Of course, there are challenges, Quinn said. "It’s not a perfect house. Not every nook and cranny is clean. So  maybe they had to have a cleaning person come in and there's funding for stuff like this. But what they can do on their own is amazing."

The lesson? "If we give people the tools, they can stay in their homes," Quinn said. "They don’t need to be institutionalized and they can have a quality of life."