Robbed of Sight, Teen Took Hold of Her Future

After accident that left her blind, Oregon teen began road to amazing recovery.

April 21, 2010, 11:27 AM

April 22, 2010 — -- In her dreams, Chrissy Steltz imagines a world that she can no longer see.

"When I go to bed every night ... my dreams are fully sighted. I still see the sky. I still see … you know, the ocean..."

She sees her 8-month-old son, Geoffrey.

"I see his chubby cheeks and his gorgeous eyes and his perfect little lips," said Steltz.

And she can even see herself -- without the sleeping mask she now wears to cover her injuries.

"The oddest of dreams is I'll pull off my sleep-shade and I'll look just like I did when I was 16," she said. "And I'll throw the sleep-shade on the ground and walk off."

It's been 11 years since a shotgun blast robbed Steltz, now 27, of her sight, and, extraordinarily, most of her face.

"The only sense -- to my knowledge -- that I have that wasn't affected at all is my sense of touch," said Steltz. "I have no smell. I have no sight. And I have a little taste." She sometimes has difficulty hearing.

In 1999, Steltz was a popular high-school sophomore hanging out with friends at her apartment in Portland, Ore.

"It's spring break," Steltz recounted. "We're all, you know, doing what teenagers shouldn't be, you know, drinking. And I went into the back room and offered them orange juice, and I saw one of my friends with the shotgun.

"My words were, 'Put that down before you kill somebody.'

"And he told me, 'It's not loaded.' Yep. And from that moment is when my life changed."

Steltz was shot, accidently, at point-blank range, a mere five feet from the teenage boy who was fooling around with a 12-gauge shotgun.

Her boyfriend at the time, Will O'Brien, arrived minutes after the shooting.

"I don't know if you have ever seen like a wounded animal trying to get up?" O'Brien said. "That's what I saw. I saw an injury that nobody survives, except somebody really strong. And she was trying to get up."

Steltz was rushed to the hospital, where surgeons desperately fought to save her life but quickly realized they could not save her face.

"The blast itself removed the contents of her left eye socket, removed her nose and the supporting mid-facial structures and damaged her right eye to the extent that she lost vision," said Dr. Eric Dierks, a surgeon who has operated on Steltz many times.

"I've not seen anything quite so severe where the patient lived."

Blind Love: 'I Thought I'd Fallen Asleep'

Steltz endured more than a dozen surgeries to rebuild her ravaged face.

"Every day was a struggle, every day," said O'Brien. "We didn't know whether she was going to live the day."

For six weeks, Steltz's friends and family waited anxiously as she lay in a drug-induced coma.

"They were telling me before she woke up that they didn't know the extent of the brain damage," said O'Brien. "She could wake up a vegetable. There is just no telling until she comes out."

Steltz remembers regaining consciousness.

"The first thing I remember is waking up in a hospital and asking if we were there yet," she said. "In my mind, mentally, I was on a trip to the beach with my family. I thought I'd fallen asleep in the back seat of the car."

Her boyfriend broke the news to her.

"His comment to me was, 'Do you know where you are? Do you see anything?'" said Steltz. "And that's when I realized, 'No. I don't see anything. Why don't I see anything?'"

O'Brien recalled what he told her: "She wasn't ever going to see again. Or smell. And that she didn't have a nose. She didn't have eyes. That they were gone. But you are beautiful."

Steltz said she felt she had a choice.

"When I finally knew what had happened to me and that I had lost my sight and that it would never be coming back," said Steltz, "I knew I could sit back and have a pity party, or I could figure out what to do and go about doing it, and that's exactly what I did."

It would be a long road to recovery, as Steltz learned day by day how to live as a blind person. She learned to read Braille, to use a cane and she learned other life skills.

"Losing my sight did in some ways take certain independence from me," Steltz said. "However, I have tried learning new methods, like learning to cook. I couldn't cook when I could see, at all … and now I cook every day."

Intent on resuming her former life, Steltz went back to her old high school, attended the prom and even graduated with her class."I started back as soon as I could my junior year," she said.

Not only that -- she graduated with straight "A"s. But how?

"You know, it's part of who I am," she said.

Blind Love: 'I Grabbed It by the Boots'

Steltz also attended classes for the blind, where she met Geoffrey Dilger.

"I wasn't sure if there was anyone out there for me," she said. "And in meeting Geoffrey, it makes you really look at everything you have to be grateful for."

By incredible coincidence, Dilger, now 27, also lost his sight when he was 16, in his case due to rare complications from an illness.

"Being blind eliminates a lot of ways to be superficial," Dilger told ABC News. "I think when you can't see somebody, you really have to listen to who this person is."

Steltz and Dilger have not let their disabilities slow them down. They have traveled extensively, even taking whitewater rafting trips.

"Every time I've done it, it is just thrilling," Steltz said.

Seven years into their relationship, they did what most people would find daunting -- if not impossible -- for a blind couple. They had a baby.

"I kind of look at little Geoffrey as like life, you know?" said Steltz. "You're either going to grab it by the boots and go or you're going to sit there and not know what to do. So I grabbed it by the boots and I was ready to go."

We asked her about the challenges involved.

"Challenging for me is don't burn dinner," she said, laughing. "You know, I kind of get up and view every day as though I were sighted. I just don't focus on my visual impairment."

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