Photography paves long road to recovery

MIDDLEBURY — It was August 2008 — deep in the heart of bike-riding, lawn-mowing season — when Goshen resident Dick Conrad found himself completely immobile. Almost overnight, his immune system had mistakenly attacked the nerves in his body, a result of the very rare Guillain-Barre syndrome.

After two-and-a-half years of rehabilitation, Conrad is relieved to count himself among the healthy again. But one need only step into Carol’s Hungry Mind Café in Middlebury to see that Conrad stayed busy even during his recovery period.

The now 73-year-old had spent years capturing photographs of landscapes and gardens, and as his muscles re-learned typing and computer navigation, he was also teaching himself to edit those digital prints. Twelve of Conrad’s painstakingly edited photographs, a set called “Addison County Impressions,” line the walls at Carol’s.

Click to view more photographs by Conrad

One recent morning, Conrad sat near the front of the café drinking coffee with hands that shook only slightly. He recalled the sudden immobility he’d experienced two and a half years ago, and the confusion of the staff at Rutland Regional Medical Center. Guillain-Barre affects approximately one in every 100,000 people, he said, and it comes on suddenly, with no apparent trigger.

 “In the space of a 36-hour period, I went from being completely active to being totally paralyzed,” said Conrad. “I remember not being sure what was going on.”

The only cure for the syndrome, besides medication, is regular physical therapy — the body must re-grow all of the nerves, while the weakened muscles recover their former strength. All of this takes time — for Conrad, it took four months in the hospital and nine more relatively immobile months at home after that before he could move around without a wheelchair.

During the months Conrad spent at Fletcher Allen, his wife, Judith Irven,  would swing by Carol’s every morning for a latté before heading up to visit him.

“Everybody here knew what was going on,” said Irven, turning to Conrad. “They were all rooting for you.”

Irven’s welcome-home gift to Conrad was a new computer, which she installed on the ground floor of their home for her wheelchair-bound, still-paralyzed husband. Armed with a stack of books and photography software, Conrad set about teaching himself to edit his old photographs. It wasn’t just the software he was learning — he was also re-teaching his hands to operate a keyboard and mouse.

“When I first came home, I still had a lot of weakness in my hands,” he said. “I was getting very frustrated.”

But the computer provided a way to mark progress as Conrad recovered his motor skills.

“The recovery process was very slow. It was always nice to have something to say, ‘I couldn’t do this a month ago,’” said Conrad, 73.

And the project offered him with emotional support.

“The photography helped very much, because I didn’t feel like I was wasting time,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I had lost a chunk of life. I was able to focus on something.”

Conrad and Irven moved up from New Jersey about 16 years ago to open a bed and breakfast, which they shut down around five years ago. Conrad, a former marketing researcher took his newfound time to rediscover his passion for photography. In his early 20s in Manhattan, he’d had his own darkroom and explored black and white photography, but he put his camera down, for the most part, until he retired to Vermont.

Before the summer of 2008, Conrad was up early in the mornings, capturing shots of the couple’s garden and county landscapes on his Nikon digital camera, many mornings before sunrise. And since Irven writes and gives talks on gardening, Conrad also photographed gardens in the county and elsewhere in the Northeast for her.

Over the years, Conrad estimated that he amassed some 15,000 photographs on his computer, both from Addison County and from other areas of the northeast. He selected the best to process, adjusting the lighting and colors in order to capture what the scene looked like to him when he took the photograph.

The work, both in the field and on the computer, has paid off: some of his works have been on display at the Photoplace Gallery in Middlebury and at Rutland’s Chaffee Art Center.

And until March, 12 photographs of mountains, waterfalls, flowers and barns will hang at Carol’s Hungry Mind.

Now, though his hands still shake, Conrad is up and about again — with a smile, he said he’s even been able to shovel snow again this year.

And he’s again been able to take some photographs in recent months, although he said he’s still not able to get as far off of the roads as he’d like to.

In a way, though, Conrad said he’s thankful for the opportunity he got to sit down and do something with his pictures.

“I hadn’t really had any time to work on (my photographs),” said Conrad. “Now I had all sorts of time. In some ways, it was sort of a blessing in disguise, from the photographic point of view.”

Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at andreas@addisonindependent.com.


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