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October 17th, 2012
07:36 AM ET

Drum Major hopes to change perception of visually impaired

Editor's note: In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle – injury, illness or other hardship – they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed. This week, Dr. Sanjay Gupta introduces us to 22-year-old college senior Paul Heddings, who leads one of the largest college marching bands in the United States.

September 7, 2007, is a day I will never forget.

That was the day I learned my life was going to change forever. I was 17 years old and leading a typical high school life in Carrollton, Missouri.

I loved sports, especially playing on my high school’s baseball team. I was also very invested in extracurricular activities like band, show choir and speech/debate.  I thought I had my life planned out before me when that day in September happened.

I went to the eye doctor thinking I needed a new contact lens prescription and instead was sent to the emergency room to undergo the first of several invasive surgeries.

It was on that day that I was informed that my retinas had detached and that my vision would never be the same again.

My junior year was riddled with doctors visits, treatments, surgeries and recoveries. Due to my decreased vision and the potential for further problems, I was no longer able to play sports. This was a huge blow to me, as I loved baseball and shared a special connection to my grandpa through it.

With the support of my friends and family I kept my head up and kept moving forward. That fall I took part in my high school's musical, determined that my health problems wouldn’t keep me from what I loved.

I became even more invested in music to find a release. My love of it led me to try out for the marching band when I went to the University of Missouri. I found a home in Marching Mizzou. It has been my best decision in college by far.

I decided very early on that I wanted to be Head Drum Major of Marching Mizzou before I left school. I love being looked to in difficult times and can keep a level head in high-pressure situations.

I don’t see my disability as an excuse not to achieve; if anything I use it as motivation. Walt Disney once said: “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”  This quote has become an inspiration to me, and I strive to do "the impossible" every day. 

I hope to change the way people perceive those living with disabilities. I don’t tell people I have a disability right off the bat; not because I’m ashamed of my disability, but because I’d rather them see all of the things I can do instead of pre-determining what I can’t do. 

I try to challenge the limits of what I "should" be able to do, and hope that others realize that they can do anything if they just put their mind to it and work hard for what they want.


soundoff (27 Responses)
  1. Darlene

    Keep your head up, that smile on your face, all that courage in your heart and you will go in life where ever you want to. I expect we will hear great things 0f you and I'm sure your rewards will be hard fought and won.

    October 17, 2012 at 08:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. TerriLyn

    Good for you!

    I have a friend who is blind and was told he'd never be able to do work in the sciences.

    He's since gone on to get a PhD in Chemistry, is doing post-doc work at Purdue, and runs a company that sells adaptive technology products for blind people who want a career in the sciences.

    Not bad for a guy who was told "You'll never do science."

    Don't listen to the haters....

    October 17, 2012 at 08:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. JonfromLI

    Nothing but props for this young man! Best of luck for a bright future!

    October 17, 2012 at 09:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. MarkinFL

    Simply impressed.

    October 17, 2012 at 12:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Catherine Graves

    Great article but it is a shame that they chose to use the terminology visually impaired. Those with visual disabilities are NOT impaired. Better to say persons with visual disabilities, persons with low-vision, persons who are blind... please try to do better CNN

    October 17, 2012 at 13:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jim D,

      Catherine, you would prefer the term "dis-abled" rather than impaired? As the father of a son who has retinitis pigmentosa, it is a completely accepted term to say "visually impaired." CNN is right on the mark with their usage. My son does not think of himself as disabled. He received a double degree in four years from an academically tough college, works full time and does not make use of disabled parking when someone transports him. He has a full and active life, not dependent on us as parents or anyone else. It is no one's business how much sight you have or do not have. Whether one has low vision or no vision, it is on a need to know basis, so why categorize one's self unnecessarily?

      October 17, 2012 at 14:38 | Report abuse |
    • Margaret

      "Visually impaired" means that a person is impaired visually, which is exactly what blind people are. Their vision is impaired. That has no bearing on how they do anything else. They cannot see normally, and that is an impairment. "Visually disabled" would technically mean they cannot see at all, that their vision is broken or disabled. That's not the case for those with only a partial impairment. You seem to have a case of hyper-political correctness.

      October 18, 2012 at 11:12 | Report abuse |
  6. Steve

    No biggie! Have you tried to look into the Ohio State School for the Blind? They had a marching band.

    October 17, 2012 at 14:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Lisa

    Congratulations, and thanks for telling your story! As a former high school drum major, this filled me with pride and also excitement for you and your future. What incredibly supportive words from your band director, too- I'm sure he didn't say that lightly (knowing band directors.) Good luck in your future. It sounds to me like you will meet every challenge facing you, and help others to do the same.

    October 17, 2012 at 23:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. OvernOut

    Extremely cool story! They do not show football pre-game or half-time shows on tv anymore, so I'm not sure how this drum major's story would have been told except for a feature story in the news. A university marching band , including the one that is lead by Paul Heddings, deserves to have the entire half-time show televised. We quit watching all bowl games that do not involve our team directly when they cut out the half-time shows. The whole household goes out to a movie on New Years instead. Thank goodness you can catch some marching band shows on You Tube, maybe Mizzou has a posting there. Go Band!

    October 18, 2012 at 04:28 | Report abuse | Reply
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    October 18, 2012 at 10:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Melody

    What an inspirational young man!!!!!!!

    October 18, 2012 at 16:09 | Report abuse | Reply
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      October 23, 2012 at 22:52 | Report abuse |
  11. Greg Bauer

    Both Pam and myself are very proud of your accomplishment. Keep up the good work, I'm sure this experience will help carry you into your life long dreams of a career after college.

    Great uncle Greg

    October 19, 2012 at 13:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Sara

    I am inspired by your story. I was born deaf, my parents raised me I can do anything I want to do and do not allow my disability stop me. My normal hearing ten month old daughter was diagnosed with bilateral retinal detachments at 6 weeks old and had vitrectomy procedures done three times. I will raise my daughter that she is capable of doing anything she wants to do. Our disabilites are totally opposite because I rely my vision while my daughter relies on her hearing for guides in our lives. Follow your dreams and goals!

    October 19, 2012 at 15:16 | Report abuse | Reply
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      snee, I don't EVER use txt spk. Ew. I can barely even type that wiutoht throwing up.I write approximately 2500 words an minute hour when I am creating, so it takes me three hours a day to write the 7500 words. Not bad. Today, though, I need to write 10,500 because I shorted myself 3K yesterday. I am sick, sick, sick (physically), so I gave myself a break yesterday.

      December 18, 2012 at 02:00 | Report abuse |
  13. Mary Blount

    My son, Sam, had the very same thing happen in both his eyes in the very same month in 2007 when he was a senior in H.S. He was active in swimming and singing the lead in Musical Theater at his school in Tennessee. During his trials he has endured and grown from the adversity, but there still is a great deal of uncertainty.
    We would very much like to be linked and speak with Paul about his treatments and hopes for his future. Since both the young men have so much in common- Sam is a senior at the University of Tennessee. He is hoping for a future in eye treatment.

    December 9, 2012 at 19:13 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.