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Vision Quest

Fred Garnett is the last person you'll ever hear complaining about any aspect of his life, but finding out that he could soon be able to see for the first time in 30 years, he admits to wishful daydreaming about a certain list of "what ifs."

At the top of that list: being able to see the faces of his children and 2-year-old grandchild.

Garnett, who went blind shortly after getting his driver's license in 1986 — diagnosed with then-untreatable Lebers Optic Atrophy, which he likened to a growing blind spot appearing over his field of vision — learned in recent months of a clinical trial using stem cells to restore vision in certain instances of retinal and optical diseases.

Garnett, 46, made headlines in 2001 for opening a coffee stand in front of Table Rock Fellowship. At the time, he spent more than a year researching his options, building and retrofitting a coffee stand for his lack of sight and — the biggest hurdle he faced — convincing a local bank to take a chance on a blind man wanting to serve hot coffee.

Great Awakening, Garnett's drive-up, ran for 12 years before a sluggish economy and divorce prompted him to find a more stable income. He then proceeded to work his way up from a kitchen line position at the Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics to the position of lead cook.

Those who know Garnett, a 1988 Crater High School grad and an active fitness buff and weightlifter since his early teen years, say that his blindness is more a fact of life than a disability. However, Garnett said, it's "pretty hard not to be excited" after learning that participants in the trial, formerly blind, are now able to read and drive.

"They'll basically take cells out of my bone marrow in my hip area, where there's a high concentration of those cells, and run them through a machine that separates stem cells," Garnett said.

"And apparently, then they inject 1.2 billion of the stem cells into different parts of my eyes, and the plan is they'll help my optic nerve to regenerate."

Garnett's lifelong friend, Guy Howard, a former Rogue Valley resident who now lives in California, plans to accompany Garnett to Florida for his treatment. Howard said Garnett's positive attitude not only makes his blindness seem like an afterthought but would make regaining his sight even more inspiring.

"No one who knows Fred thinks about the fact that he can't see because it doesn't keep him from doing almost anything that someone who can see is able to do. One big thing for people who have a disability, people don't know how to interact (to them), so they usually, without meaning to, will ignore them out in public," Howard said.

"We always felt like Fred didn't need to feel like a blind guy. We let him drive our cars before, we've taken him rafting ... and I don't know of anyone with a better sense of humor than Fred. We all play jokes on Fred — we'll take his beer at dinner and replace it with water — but he dishes it right back. He's always had the attitude of maybe he can't see, but life is still really good."

Garnett's oldest son, TJ Romero, said learning that his dad's vision could be restored, prompted him to think of a list probably not unlike his dad's.

"He's never seen his kids. It's kind of crazy to think after so long he's going to get a chance to see his children — four sons — and his grandchild. It's insane the amount of things he can do that most people would be really discouraged by," Romero said.

"How many head cooks does anyone know who can't see what they're doing and are really exceptional at their job? Most people don't think twice about the vision because they can see, but when you think of all that he's accomplished, he's been a big inspiration."

Romero teased that his dad could soon have a "fast forward" view of the world "post-1980s."

"The last thing he remembers seeing is how everything looked in 1986. When we try to talk and explain how things look, he has to use his imagination, so it's going to all probably look pretty different than he's expecting," said Romero.

"Plus, the last time he remembers seeing himself in the mirror is when he was 16. How strange is it going to be to see himself 30 years older?"

Whether his vision is partially restored or he is able to see an older version of himself in the mirror, Garnett said he's grateful for the support of family and friends. With treatment cost alone hovering at around $22,000, friends and family have hosted fundraisers and established a donation link, raising just over $22,000 out of a $25,000 goal so far. Garnett said he'll do "whatever it takes" to raise the rest but is quick to reiterate that his happiness doesn't hinge on the procedure.

"I've talked to a few people who have had it done, so it's hard not to be excited. I remember when Christopher Reeves went thru what he went through and was talking about stem cells being the hope for him walking again," he said.

"Whatever happens for me, my life is good. What happened with me going blind is hereditary. We always joke about me being the only one in my family that was affected because I was the only one who could've handled it. I've tried not to let it define who I am but I have to admit I really have a lot of hope."

For more information in donating to Garnett, see www.youcaring.com/fred-garnett-672534

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

Fred Garnett of Medford works out Friday with his seeing-eye dog at Superior Athletic Club. Garnett has been accepted for stem-cell treatment to restore his vision at a hospital in Florida. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch