Losing her sight has not stopped Heather Bitzan from making her fabulous soups for her three sons. She can read recipes and food labels thanks to an ingenious device called the OrCam, a small camera attached to her eyeglasses that translates information into spoken words.

Lions CLubs INternational members stand with woman with orcam glasses and special cane
Since losing her eyesight, Bitzan can better navigate the world with the devices Lions have provided.

“You know how boys are and eating,” says Bitzan with a chuckle. Her sons are 21, 19, and 16, and the Bitzans live in Brandon, a bucolic town of 450 in northern Minnesota.

Provided to her by Lions, OrCam also can identify faces, so Bitzan knows immediately which son has walked into the room or, while doing errands in town, who exactly has approached her and asks how she is faring.

Seven years ago, she lost her sight in her right eye after a tumor was detected. Two years ago, afflicted with a tumor near her left eye, she underwent an operation at the Mayo Clinic. “I could see for 22 hours. I took a nap, and they came in and said, ‘Time for dinner.’ I said turn on the light.

“It was hell. It was like a bad dream. They were yelling code red, and people were all over me.”

Smart cane device
Bitzan’s Smartcane uses sensors to send vibrations to warn her of obstacles.

Her husband, Tim, and her sons were in the middle of the harvest.  The family farms 1,000 acres of corn and beans. “Come tomorrow,” she told him. “They made it by 12:30 in the morning. He said, ‘Well, it’s the next day.'”

The Bitzans are well-known in town. “The boys play sports. In Brandon, that means football, basketball, and baseball,” says Lisa Hynes, a friend and president of the Brandon Lions Club. “She is very active in town. She’s at every game. She’s very well-known. It’s nice to see our dollars making someone’s life a little bit easier.”

Brandon is so small and cozy it does not have a single stoplight. Residents meet for coffee at Joe’s Gas & Deli, enthusiastically support the Chargers of Brandon-Evansville High and come out in large numbers for the annual Summer Fest, which ends with a crowded street dance.

Saying everyone knows everyone else in Brandon hardly describes the closeness of the community. “We celebrate together when someone graduates, gets married or has a baby,” says Hynes. “We grieve together when someone loses a family member or even a pet.”

Chartered in 1969 and now with about a dozen active members, the Brandon Lions are especially visible during Summer Fest. They hold a Fish Fry, run Bingo and sell burgers and hot dogs.

Orcam camera
The OrCam is a camera, mounted on Bitzan’s eyeglasses, which takes a picture of a person’s face.

The club first purchased for Bitzan a Smartcane, which uses sensors to send vibrations to the user to warn of obstacles. She uses and likes that. But after the Bitzans saw a Dr. Phil show on the OrCam, Heather asked the club if they would consider helping to pay for one. The club pitched in US$500, as did the nearby Evansville Lions Club. The fire department also kicked in US$200.

OrCam’s facial recognition software takes a picture of a person’s face and associates it with the name provided by the wearer. The device’s camera later will recognize that person, and a small speaker above the wearer’s ear tells them who that is. In her own voice, Bitzan is able to quickly discover the identity of more than two dozen family members and friends

“It’s been a real blessing,” Bitzan says of the OrCam. “It’s helped me get my confidence back. To be dependent on others—not at the age of 44.”

She learned how to use it through a DVD tutorial, which her husband helped her with. After losing her sight, she also spent six weeks in Duluth at the Lighthouse Center for Vision Loss (partly supported by Lions) learning to handle basic things such as cooking and getting around.

Bitzan likes to stay busy, blindness or not. She cleaned houses for 19 years and after losing her vision continued to tidy up the fire department hall. “People say I clean better now when I’m blind. Touch is my eyes. I can feel the dirt,” she says.

Orcam mounted on eyeglasses
Facial recognition software alerts Bitzan when she encounters that face again.

She also continued to volunteer at the Relay of Life, a fundraiser for fighting cancer. She handed out soda and chips and even announced the names of the seven major donors. “I was holding the sheet, and people were confused. They thought I was reading it. But I memorized it,” she said.

A fundraiser in town for her brought out 600 people. They bought enough pasta dinners to help the Bitzans pay off their home.

Acquaintances who see her around town marvel at her mobility and say something along the lines of “you can’t be blind.” She replies, “Well, take a look at my leg. See the bumps and bruises.”

Added Hynes, “She doesn’t sit around feeling sorry for herself. She has a sense of humor about it and tries to make you feel comfortable.”

Being blind has its comic moments. Before she received the OrCam, she cooked a tater tot dish and pulled the correct ingredients from the freezer. Or so she thought. She ended up using chocolate-covered peanuts. A son posted the results on social media. “‘His friends were saying, ‘I want to come over for some of that chocolate dish,'” she recalled with a chuckle.

Then there was the time she scoured the toilet bowl with a blue-colored cleaning solution. Not realizing she had closed the garbage lid and not the toilet lid, she stepped right into the toilet. “I walked around with a Smurf foot for two days,” she said.

Losing her sight means adjusting to a new reality. “You have to figure it out. You have to adapt,” she said.

Still, not being able to see her sons in action is a hard reality. “I was the first one there at the games and the last to leave. I always had a camera in my face,” she said. “I went to the graduation. I was there, but I didn’t get to see him.”

The loss of her sight was compounded by the loss of her dad three years ago to cancer. The losses make her reflective of mortality and time and making the most of it. “They gave him 18 months and it took six. So, I have to look at it that way,” she said.

When her remaining good eye went bad, doctors said it might regain its function within a year. “It’s been two years, so I am not holding my breath,” she said, adding, “There’s also a chance of a robotic eye or medication to regenerate it.”

Until then, she’ll stick with the OrCam.