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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.


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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.