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A matter of perception

Marching Mizzou drum major hopes to change how people see visual impairments

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  • Story by Ryan Gavin
  • Photos by Shane Epping
  • Published: Oct. 5, 2011
Paul Heddings

Drum major Paul Heddings conducts Marching Mizzou during a football game. Heddings, who suffered a detached retina while in high school, is legally blind.

Looking sharp in a crisp white uniform, conducting pregame standards in precise tempo and style, Paul Heddings doesn’t appear to be any different from the other three Marching Mizzou drum majors. But one thing goes unseen by crowds at Memorial Stadium and by the band members intently watching him for direction: Heddings is legally blind.

The first-year drum major hasn’t always had this condition. In his early teens, he was nearsighted, a common optical problem easily corrected with glass or contact lenses. He clearly remembers the day he learned something more serious was affecting his eyes.

Change of plans

Heddings, who had just started his junior year at Carrollton High School, was experiencing blurred vision. He planned to stop at the optometrist for a new prescription before going to a football game. But instead of going to the game that early September evening, he was taken to an ophthalmologist in an emergency room in Shawnee Mission, Kan., for the first of several invasive surgeries. Heddings’ vision was fuzzy because his retinas had detached.

The retinas are the thin layers of tissue on the back of the eye that process light let in by the pupil and send the information to the brain for interpretation. Heddings’ had detached from the back of his eye and were simultaneously coming apart in places. The surgeries were conducted to re-attach the retinas and essentially fuse them back together. Though the vision lost where the retinas had torn couldn't be restored, the laser treatments helped to keep the vision loss from spreading.

In addition to the retina issues, Heddings has a cataract in his left eye, which hasn’t yet required surgery, and a cataract in his right eye, which has. He now has a scleral buckle in his right eye, a band woven through the five muscles and tightened like a belt to keep the eye from pulling itself apart.

Usually such conditions occur after a traumatic incident in which a person is jolted severely, such as a car accident. In Heddings’ case, the doctors’ best guess about the cause is genetics.

“After the surgery, Paul asked me why God let this happen,” his mom, Traci Heddings, says. “I said, ‘Because you’re strong enough to handle it.’ Apparently, Paul was built to handle a lot.”

The recovery was a slow, excruciating process. The first painkillers weren’t strong enough to allow Heddings the chance to recuperate. His body wanted to sleep off the anesthetics, but the pain kept him from it. Even when we sleep, our eyes move. A stronger prescription, a determined attitude and a close-knit support group set him on the road to recovery.

“I decided that wallowing in self-pity wasn’t going to make anything better,” Paul Heddings says. “The only way I could recover from what I thought was rock-bottom was to buck up and deal with it.”

But saying it and doing it were two different things. The teen who loved football and baseball couldn't play either sport anymore. Ever. A simple jolt could detach his retinas again and possibly cause him to go completely blind. And then there was the fear that people might treat him differently because of his impairment. He also felt the shock of no longer being independent.

“Being dependent on people was the biggest thing for him,” Traci Heddings says. “He was so used to being the one who was there for people. Then Paul had to admit that, yes, this happened to him.”

Finding support

Paul Heddings

Heddings, a percussionist and singer, works closely with the other three Marching Mizzou drum majors to keep the band on track.

When he returned to school, some teachers refused to believe Heddings was legally blind. They saw Heddings on Sundays at church pretending to read from a hymnal to try to fit in. He didn’t act like things were wrong, Paul’s mom says, because he was in denial that they were.

Heddings' parents, his best friend, Sean Scott, and one of his teachers, Scarlet Horine, refused to let him give up. His parents were constantly at the school, advocating for accommodations and working with organizations such as Services for the Blind and Alphapointe. Scott was by his side the entire way, pushing him to do more and try even harder. Horine, his chemistry teacher, helped after school hours when Heddings was still recovering from surgery and couldn’t make it to the classroom. She visited Heddings and another student recovering from surgery and lectured to make sure they weren’t falling behind academically.

“Even though I didn’t want to get down on myself, if I didn’t have those people to remind me that I could still do great things, there was a possibility that I could have slipped into a self-pity situation,” Heddings says. “Without them, things could have gone a lot differently.”

Music began to play a much bigger role in Heddings’ life. Although he had been active in band, choir, madrigals and musicals before, the intensity of involvement instantly increased.

“It became a way to just go to rehearsal and focus on the music instead of focusing on what I couldn’t do anymore,” Heddings says. “I enjoyed sports more before because I didn’t understand the power of music and what it can do for you. Music took on a really large role in my life.”

Instant emphasis did not equate to instant success. Like everything else, music got tougher with his vision impairment. If Heddings wanted to rehearse effectively with an ensemble, he had to not only learn but memorize the music early. Difficultly picking out notes on sheet music if it isn't near his face means he can’t read music and play an instrument — or even sing — at the same time.

Marching orders

Adjustments to his approach to music were just a few more surmountable obstacles to Heddings. He became captain of the drumline his senior year of high school. When it came time for college, he auditioned for the Marching Mizzou drumline and earned a spot on cymbals his freshman year. He learned music by listening to audio files and putting the pieces together in his head. Then, near the end of his sophomore year last spring, Heddings decided he to audition for a prestigious drum major spot.

“He told me he was going to try out for drum major and make it, but I absolutely did not think he was going to make it,” Traci Heddings says. “It’s a big thing, and he’s not a music major and has all these problems. It’s a lot to expect to lead 350 people when you can’t see.”

Heddings submitted a résumé and made it through the initial round of cuts. From there, he had to prepare a piece to conduct in front of a group of staff and other drum-major and section-leader candidates. That same round, he appeared before a panel of staff, graduate assistants and other students for an interview. By his estimates, about half of the group was surprised to hear he had an impairment, which is a point of pride with Heddings.

“I’m not ashamed of it or hiding, but I don’t typically say, ‘Hi, I’m Paul and I have a visual impairment’ because my goal is to change the way people see visual impairments,” Heddings says. “I can assure you that people who are legally blind aren’t poor lost souls who don’t know what’s going on in the world or how to handle themselves.”

Heddings made it to the final round of the audition process with four other candidates. Jeff Panhorst, who had been a drum major for two years prior to the auditions, led the pregame and halftime performances of the black-and-gold spring football game. That gave each of the other four candidates a full quarter of work with the band in the stands. It’s a situation candidates can’t truly prepare for because so many variables go along with it. When the leadership positions were announced, Heddings found his name on the list. He'd earned his position atop the ladder.

“Most of the people in the band didn't really know he was going to be as strong a candidate as he was; he was sort of the dark-horse candidate,” Brad Snow, director of athletics bands, says. “Then he auditioned, and everybody was just like, ‘Wow! This guy would be a great drum major in Marching Mizzou.’”

Campus life

There haven’t been any issues so far this season for Heddings in leading one of the largest bands in Marching Mizzou’s history. Though seeing from the field to the ladders as a cymbal player was at times an problem, Heddings has good peripheral vision still and can see from side to the center ladder when he’s not on it, conducting. The four drum majors are fully prepared and work as a cohesive unit to be on top of all situations.

In addition to Marching Mizzou, Heddings, a history and political science double major, keeps busy with Mock Trial as its vice president of operations. He’s in the Honor’s College and working toward law school at the university because of the program’s strength and how much he loves it at Mizzou.

Future visual impairments could throw a wrench into his plans at any time, though. The cataract in his left eye will likely eventually become bad enough that it needs to be operated on. A common side effect of cataract surgeries are retina detachments, so Heddings expects to deal with new vision impairments in the future and could lose more functionality from it. But he’s not letting it keep him from what he wants to do.

“Any amount of damage can happen at any time, but you don’t know when or even if it will,” Heddings says. “I could go the rest of my life and never have to worry about it, which is sincerely my hope. You just have to look at it with optimism.”

Assistance at Mizzou

The Heddings family advises any student struggling with anything to look for people who can help. Family, friends, educators and programs can help in various ways, and there are always people around willing to help.

“Mizzou has a wonderful department to get help: the Office of Disability Services,” Traci Heddings says. “They’re just fantastic. They made the transition to college so much smoother and worried parents not so worried.”

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Reader feedback

  • I just wanted to take a minute to say thank you for putting Paul's story online. We have had many, many people contact us and comment about the article. The reporter was so nice and did such a good job telling Paul's story.  Thanks again for giving him the opportunity to reach out to others who meet their challenges head-on.

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