Connie Anderson, center, despite physical disabilities that doctors once considered would not allow her to function in society, has maintained a normal life. She has been in the care of her father, Grover Anderson, left, and her mother Cleone Anderson, right, to help her cope.
ALBANY, Ga. — Despite having a rough childhood, Connie Anderson has made it a long way — so much so that her perseverance is a fascination to those around her.
When she was born on Dec. 22, 1955, she seemed healthy. In fact, she was described by her mother as an “energetic little girl, and very busy.” She always wanted to do anything she was asked to do.
At age 5, things changed when what was initially thought to be meningitis turned out to be encephalitis.
“They were not sure what she had at first,” recalled Cleone Anderson, Connie’s mother. “There were needles here, needles there. It was bad.”
The encephalitis burned her optic nerve, resulting in Connie Anderson suffering a vision loss great enough to be legally blind. She does not see color, so she identifies people and objects only by touch or sound.
“My mother said that she never understood how she did that,” Cleone Anderson said.
In the earlier days of her illness, she had seizures — which have since been controlled. She suffered headaches, and at one point was paralyzed on her left side for three months.
It was something that the family had to face while Grover Anderson, Connie’s father, was still active in the U.S. Air Force — which took the family to places such as Okinawa, Oklahoma and Louisiana — and, over the course of 20 years, kept them apart more than they cared to be.
“As we traveled from one station to the next, I would try to get someone to help her,” said Cleone Anderson.
The family was even told by a doctor at one point that, since she would never become anything other than a vegetable, that they might as well take her to a cabin in the woods.
“I said: ‘You know what, my God is bigger than that,’” Cleone Anderson said.
After a three-month stint in the hospital, Connie Anderson had to start over. At first it was difficult for her to recognize certain items such as a pencil or a stove. Eventually, she was able to make progress and return to the daughter Cleone Anderson was used to — one that was eager to help out with household chores such as dusting or cleaning dishes.
Then came the next step.
“We kept her at home for awhile, and then we got her into a learning center,” Connie’s mother said.
She was later enrolled in Sylvester Road Elementary School. There, Cleone Anderson would go into the classroom to observe her so she could get ideas on how to help her daughter more at home.
Connie eventually ended up in the special education program at Albany High School, and then put into the Georgia Academy for the Blind. During class breaks, she held down jobs at places such as McDonald’s and Goodwill.
Following her graduation from the academy in 1974, the visual impairments Connie suffered made it difficult for her to secure employment.
“I took her by the hand and went from to store to store,” Cleone Anderson said. “I told them not to pay her, but just to hire her for the experience — and nothing.”
In 1976, the Anderson’s began talking with officials at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital regarding a possible job opportunity for Connie.
Cleone Anderson was in tears when she recalled the day that her firstborn was hired for a job at the hospital — where she remained as an employee until just a few weeks ago.
“They hired her that day,” she said. “(That job search) was very, very hard.”
She apparently learned her way around Phoebe rather well, despite not being able to read any of the signs. She started at the hospital, her family said, as a ward clerk. After that, she helped with filing doctor’s and nurse’s notes into charts.
She spent most of her time in the radiology darkroom. After that, she assisted with picking up medications and mail.
“She was all over Phoebe,” Cleone Anderson said.
Her most recent job at Phoebe, before leaving earlier this year, was in the laundry department — which is she spent a year in.
Now she is unable to work, at least for now.
In 1990, as a result of a back problem, Connie had surgery that resulted in multiple pieces of medal — including two long rods — being put in her spine. It was a procedure that put her in a body cast from the shoulders to the hips, which she worked in for several months.
Not long ago, the rods broke in three places. For a long time, the Anderson’s were not able to find a surgeon that would touch her back in order to replace the rods.
Just recently, they were put in touch with a physician in St. Louis that would help Connie by inserting longer rods in her back that the Anderson’s are told are much less likely to break.
“The doctor said this will be a long process,” Cleone Anderson said.
As of last week, a date for the surgery had not been set. In the meantime, Connie will be leaving her position at Phoebe and is relocating with her parents to Nashville, Tenn.
In the course of caring for Connie, her parents had two more children — both daughters, and for the oldest of the trio, being a big sister was a privilege.
“When her sister was born, it seemed to make her happier than ever,” Cleone Anderson said of Connie. “She babied her so much.
“We had another girl three years later.”
Together, the three girls formed the “Anderson Sisters” and gave musical performances for various local assemblies while their parents made their costumes and carted the necessary equipment from appearance to appearance.
Connie wanted to take guitar to expand her musical horizons, but was unable to. Her youngest sister, who has since moved to Nashville with a degree in music, taught her to play the piano.
These days, Connie is independent. Due to her vision loss, she has to utilize a tag system to help coordinate her clothes. Beyond that, she is able to do her own hair and make-up.
In order to feed herself, the foods in the family’s refrigerator are labeled so that she can identify the items by touch. She cooks with a microwave, but does not use the stove.
Cleone Anderson credits her faith for getting through the struggle it took to get to the days when her daughter was having grand mal seizures to her being able to function in the working world.
“I had a very difficult time with this,” she said. “She was my first baby, and I was scared to death. I had a lot of responsibilities, and Daddy (Grover Anderson) helped a lot while he was home.
“After a lot of prayer, and after it hit us this was real, the Lord was our only hope. It has gotten easier, and she has learned a lot more.”
As a sign of her independence, Connie has traditionally taken her paychecks and cashed them on her own for the purpose of giving her parents some money to help cover expenses.
“(The money she gives) is to cover her expenses, not ours,” Grover Anderson said.
Connie’s adjustment to the world outside of the Anderson home came through the course of certain exercises, including Cleone losing her in a store on purpose to see if her daughter would be able to find her.
It has also come through her interactions with people.
“She has been involved with people and groups to familiarize herself with people and things other than Mommy and Daddy,” Cleone Anderson said. “She is totally miserable at home. She doesn’t like to be idle.”
Cleone Anderson has been impressed enough with her daughter, and inspired enough by how far the family as a whole has come, that she is seriously considering writing a book one day about the journey the family has taken.
If for no other reason, the book may help someone else going through a similar situation.
“I have always said that I need to write a book about her,” she said. “People have asked: ‘How did you handle it?’”
“I saw one girl having a seizure in the mall one time, and they say not to touch them for fear of a lawsuit — but I wasn’t worried about that. We went through so much, and I think a book would really help someone.”
Both Cleone and Grover Anderson encourage others in a similar situation to utilize prayer, and to practice patience.
“It you have a problem, do your homework,” Cleone Anderson said.