Man adjusts to losing most of eyesight after shooting

There are dozens of little tricks that Geoff Allen created to live his new life, one that began seven months ago when a bullet took the majority of his eyesight.

A notch cut into the number “5” on the microwave helps him find the other numbers and the start key. A bare lightbulb kept on his dresser allows him to see what color his clothes are.

Next to the telephone, he keeps a big, black marker, a notebook and a magnifying glass so he can write messages in clear block letters.

“I tried it with a pen, but I just wrote over everything,” Allen, 42, said, then looked over to his rocking chair.

“At first, I thought I was going to have to sit in that chair for the rest of my life.”

After suffering an injury more often seen in combat zones, according to Robert Trahan, one of Allen’s occupational therapists, Allen has tried to rebuild his life as it once stood.

“If he’s wallowing in self-pity inside, he’s not showing it,” Trahan said.

On Oct. 16, Allen’s life changed after a normal, everyday encounter.

His fiancee, Lacey King, was decorating for Halloween at their apartment at the Chateau Deville complex on Sharp Road. She made a pot of chili and invited a friend, a neighbor from the apartment complex across the street whose husband had died recently.

Allen came in from a long day of installing lights at a new fire station on Wooddale Avenue. But a little after 5 p.m., their friend decided she wanted to spend some time alone instead, and Allen offered to walk her home.

It was a warm evening, the sky beginning to darken, when Allen returned and crossed the parking lot outside his apartment. There he saw a young man with a dog — Allen called it a pit bull — on a leash.

“Don’t you sic that dog on my cat,” Allen remembered saying. Tigger, the 20-pound black Maine coon cat Allen had rescued as a kitten, walked alongside him.

The young man released the dog, which chased the cat between vehicles, Allen said. Then Allen ran to the dog and pulled it off. Police reports say he kicked at the dog.

Then he heard several gunshots. Bullets struck his truck and other vehicles in the parking lot.

One bullet entered his left hand, which shielded his face. It severed his index finger, passed into his head beside his left eye and exited. Allen fell onto his hands and knees. When the shooting stopped, he stood to look around, then collapsed.

When King heard the shots, she ran out. The shooter was gone, but the dog was on top of Allen, licking at his wounds.

Before the shooting, Allen had little time for sitting. He proudly rattles off his work history, starting as a teenager making pretzels at a shopping mall, then driving trucks and building houses before becoming an electrician.

“I’m a get-up-and-go kind of dude,” Allen said. “Every job I’ve had, I’ve run crews. I’ve had four, six, eight guys, and you go do this, you go do that. ... And that’s just how I am. It took me a long time to get over that. Because I’m ‘Get it done, get it done,’” he said, snapping his fingers.

After work, Allen liked to relax and play the guitar. During his two years as a student at LSU, he played in the band, and he loved classic rock and country. Last fall, he started playing with a church band.

Patience did not come easily to Allen, King said. The first lesson he learned was how to slow down.

After the shooting, Allen spent 24 days in the intensive care unit at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, his family wondering whether he would live, then wondering how.

“My head was swollen up like a basketball,” Allen said, recalling the three days before doctors could operate.

Heavily sedated, Allen continuously tried to pop from the hospital bed, asking “Where are my boots?” and trying to hurry to work.

He experienced “weird dreams,” seeing dogs and cats, talking to apparitions and fearing someone was bearing down on him, trying to kill him. The hospital staff strapped him to his bed for the first few days.

Three pins stuck out of Allen’s left hand where the bullet smashed his index and middle fingers. The bullet’s path destroyed his sinuses and sense of smell.

His jaw, tight with reinforced steel, prevented him from even squeezing a French fry in his mouth. His forehead is also reinforced with a steel plate — a scar stretches the width of his head.

An IV in his arm, Allen ate little and dropped 20 pounds.

Months later, he longs to apologize to the paramedics and hospital staff who helped him.

“He had some great nurses and doctors, and, poor baby, he was so mean to them,” King said.

After weeks in the hospital, Allen moved to Touro Infirmary in New Orleans for speech and physical therapy, then stayed with his family in McComb, Miss., while receiving therapy at the Southwest Center for Rehabilitation for six weeks.

He learned to use his remaining senses. In Touro, he knew by the squeak of a staff member’s shoes if the cart rattling down the hall was full of food or medicine.

At home, he listens to the parking lot and knows which neighbor pulls up and how many people are in the car.

“You learn how to use it better,” he said. “You tune into it more.”

When Allen returned home from Mississippi in February, his first meal was the chili King had prepared the night of the shooting.

“She froze it,” Allen said through a grin. “After I got through with my therapy and was three or four months before I got back, I got to eat my chili.”

In New Orleans and McComb, he had regained his balance and speech and was starting to become used to his new reality, but he had a lot to learn about living with a darker world. The shooting left him with limited vision in his right eye — a hazy tunnel, he said — and nothing in his left.

“They can’t fix it,” he said. “They put my head back together, put my jaw back together, put this back together, put my hand back together, but that was all they could do.”

Back at home, Allen fought to live as he did before Oct. 16. He couldn’t play his guitars, and it took more than three months after the shooting to button his shirt sleeve himself and tie his boots.

“He came out all excited,” King remembered. “I tied my boots, I tied my boots!”

In a basic living skills class at Lighthouse Louisiana in Baton Rouge, an assistance center formerly known as Lighthouse for the Blind, Allen learned a few tricks he needs to live his regular life.

His teachers taught him to cook and do chores.

Allen learned to use a cane. He requested they blindfold him because he fears one day he may lose his remaining vision. He navigated the Mall of Louisiana blindfolded and crossed several blocks in downtown Baton Rouge, learning to use the beeping traffic signals for the visually impaired, a process he called “nerve-wracking.”

“What impressed me was that in light of the circumstances, he didn’t look at it as an excuse or obstacle,” said Trahan, the occupational therapist who taught Allen’s class. “He took control of the situation and didn’t let it hold him back.”

In April, sitting in his rocking chair nearly six months to the day after he was shot, Allen reflected on the moments that changed his life. He expressed sadness that the dog he pulled off his cat was put down after the shooting.

The boy police say shot him awaits trial in the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison.

“I already forgave this boy,” Allen said. “I forgave him way back.”

For now, Allen looks forward to work outside of his apartment and his small garden he keeps outside.

“I’m doing good,” he said. “I can do around the house. I can sweep, wash clothes, cook. I’m tired of staying in the house. There’s only so much I can do. I get my chores done, and it’s 10 o’clock. And I’m wondering, now what can I do?”

Former co-workers have offered him work in construction or doing electrical work, but, he said, they don’t understand how different he is now. That work would be too dangerous, for him and others, Allen said.

He knows there is something he can do, either at the Lighthouse Louisiana paper cup factory where many vision-impaired people work, or at a store, like Wal-Mart.

But in conversation he doesn’t dwell on his limitations. He plans to restring one of his guitars so he can strum with his strong hand.

Friends come by the house and see him, and Allen feels comfortable walking across Sharp Road when the light is good to the convenience store where King works because he has lived in the area for so long.

“I count my blessings every day,” he said, “and I can’t even count them all. ... Abundant. Abundant.”