Image: Jeffrey Lovitky
Jacquelyn Martin  /  AP
Jeffrey Lovitky pets a horse at this stable in Chevy Chase, Md.m on June 16, 2008, where he used to come with Sandra Welner, who was blind and died in 2001. In May 2002, Lovitky sued the Treasury Department on behalf of the American Council of the Blind, arguing that its failure to design a currency that is accessible to blind people is a form of discrimination.
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updated 6/29/2008 3:27:17 PM ET 2008-06-29T19:27:17

He thinks of her every time he gazes at the painting — a blazing orange sun she drew a few years after the tragedy. It is the only splash of color in his tiny K Street office and it gives him great joy, and a stab of sorrow.

He thinks of her every time he plucks a new $5 bill from his wallet and sees the large purple numeral emblazoned in the corner. It reminds him of how he used to sort her money: $1 bills in one envelope, fives and tens in others.

And of course he thought of her last month when a federal appeals court ruled on a case that could result in the redesign of the entire U.S. currency. It was one of the great legal victories of 53-year-old attorney Jeffrey Lovitky's career, and he wishes she could have been there to share it.

But had she been there, it might never have happened.

For the lawsuit filed on behalf of the American Council of the Blind was never just about discrimination or changing the currency so the blind can distinguish a $1 bill from a $20.

It was about a brilliant, gifted woman who changed so many perceptions and overcame so many obstacles that those who knew her never doubted her ability to continue inspiring enormous change, even from the grave.

It was about the memory of a smile.

In his second-floor office, Lovitky sifts through a well-thumbed photo album. "Here's a Sandy smile," he says, plucking a picture from the page. "And here's one. And this is truly a Sandy smile."

The pictures show a petite brunette nestling into his shoulder under a cherry blossom tree, playfully pushing him in an oversized beach wheelchair on the sand, clutching his arm at a black tie event at which she was receiving yet another award.

His eyes mist at the memory — Sandra Welner, the brilliant physician whose dazzling smile and tenacious spirit stole Lovitky's heart.

He found her after placing a personal ad in a Jewish newspaper — or really, she found him. He remembers the letter she wrote in response — not the words, but the tone. She sounded so intelligent, so lively, so interesting, and yet there was some obscure reference to a disability.

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"I really must meet this person," he thought.

Their first date was in an Irish pub in April 1994. She was already seated when he arrived, and he felt an instant attraction to the radiant young woman with the gentle brown eyes and tumble of dark curls.

They talked for hours. She told him about her practice as a gynecologist, running a clinic for women with disabilities; about her parents — Holocaust survivors from Poland who had created a new life and family in Pittsburgh; about her travels all over Europe, Australia and Israel.

But there were things she never mentioned in those first few hours. He had no idea that she couldn't see his thinning hair and clear blue eyes, that she could only barely make out the shape of his face. Or that she had called the pub earlier to ask about the menu, so she could pretend to read it when she ordered.

It was only when they were preparing to leave, when she stood unsteadily and asked for help in getting a taxi, that he realized that she had difficulty walking. She held out her arm. Grasping it, he sensed they would be together for a long time.

Their dates were simple: walks in the park, petting horses at a stables near her Silver Spring apartment, takeout Thai dinners and occasional splurges on extravagant chocolate desserts at the Willard Hotel. She discussed her medical cases. He told her about his legal ones. Devoted news junkies, they often spent Saturday nights by the computer, Lovitky reading aloud the big stories of the day.

Not expected to live
Gradually, he learned what had happened in those terrible days back in 1987.

Image: Sandra Welner
AP
In this undated photo provided by Jeffrey Lovitky, Sandra Welner, who was blind and died in 2001, is seen in Washington. In May 2002, Lovitky sued the Treasury Department on behalf of the American Council of the Blind, arguing that its failure to design a currency that is accessible to blind people is a form of discrimination.
She was almost 30, already a leading expert on fertility and women's reproductive health. She had a large circle of friends and colleagues, a thriving career as a micro-surgeon and no shortage of suitors.

Traveling alone on vacation in Europe, Welner fell ill — so ill that she checked herself into a hospital in Amsterdam. Her family is not certain what happened next except that she went into cardiac arrest and suffered a serious brain injury.

Welner's mother, Barbara, 81, still sobs at the shock of seeing her comatose daughter in a foreign hospital. Even if she survived, doctors said, she would be lucky to regain the ability of a 2-year-old.

"NO!" the mother cried. Not my brilliant, beautiful daughter, who could paint portraits that belonged in galleries, who played the violin so exquisitely that she was offered music scholarships in high school, who graduated from medical school at the age of 22. This was a child who, at the age of 12, had begged not to join a family vacation to Florida because she had enrolled in college courses instead.

Now doctors were saying she should lock her away.

"Not my Sandy," the mother said.

And so, for 16 days in Amsterdam, she read medical journals and newspapers and played classical music for her lifeless daughter. She talked to her and caressed her — anything to trigger a response. She got none. "The doctors thought I was delusional," she said.

Back in the United States, doctors offered the same grim prognosis.

Again, the mother said no.

And so Barbara and Nick Welner took their child home to New Haven, Conn. They read to her. They fed her. They bathed her. They taught her to count, to swallow, to sit up. They cried with her. Hour after hour, for days and months and years.

'I was in awe'

It wasn't a miracle, her mother says of her daughter's steady, excruciating recovery. It came of a determination so powerful that it burst from her broken body with a force that nothing could hold back.

But there were moments that felt like miracles. The day Sandy took her first tentative steps. The day a friend phoned from Israel, where Sandy had worked, and she began speaking in fluent Hebrew. She hadn't forgotten a word.

"I was in awe," her mother said.

Years later, as Lovitky heard these stories, he too was in awe. But not just of the woman he had grown to love. He was also awed by the older woman who became his dear friend.

"Sandy had such spirit and such courage," Lovitky says, "but her mother did, too. Such effort, such faith."

This was a woman who had fled the Warsaw ghetto with false papers as a young girl, who with the help of the Red Cross found her way to nursing school in England and eventually married a fellow Polish refugee in the United States. Both husband and wife had families who perished in concentration camps.

The Welners raised four children, two boys and two girls. But Sandy was always the star. "There was just this sense that she would accomplish extraordinary things," says her brother, Michael Welner.

By the time Lovitky met her, Welner's vision was severely damaged, her hands shook, and she walked with an unsteady gait. But her speech and mind were clear. And her memory was better than ever.

Lovitky marveled at her defiance. She refused to use a wheelchair. Instead she would pile the chair with her medical books and push it. Or she would use a cane.

She was dependent on others — the stream of medical students she paid to help her read, and write and file, on strangers to help her catch a cab, or spend money. And yet, Lovitky says, "she was more independent than anyone I knew."

She went skydiving in Australia, alone. She climbed — inch by inch — the ancient historic site, Masada, overlooking the Dead Sea in Israel.

When she eventually moved into her own apartment in Washington, she insisted on cooking great Passover seders for her family.

"If Sandy wanted to do something, nothing was going to stop her," Lovitky says.

Dr. Alan Decherney, a leading gynecologist and obstetrician, remembers the young woman with the cane shuffling into his office at Yale University to ask for his help. In a residency, years earlier, he had considered her smart and promising. Now she just looked pitiful.

You can't go into practice, he told her, knowing how harsh he sounded but trying to be honest. You are legally blind and you are spastic.

But Welner pressed on. And something about her courage moved Decherney to let her sit in with other residents and join him on patient rounds.

She astounded him. This woman isn't just smart, Decherney thought. She's brilliant.

"I had to tell her not to answer all the questions all the time," Decherney said, chuckling.

For the rest of her life Welner called Decherney her hero. When no one else in medicine would answer her calls, he made them on her behalf. With Decherney's help she landed a job overseeing a clinic for women with disabilities at Washington Hospital Center. At the time, there were few resources for disabled women who wanted to get pregnant.

"Doctors simply didn't want to deal with a woman in a wheelchair who wanted to have a baby," said Trish Day, one of Welner's first patients who became a close friend. "Sandy didn't just understand the complications of a disabled body," Day said. "She understood my dream."

A year and half later, after watching another surgeon perform an emergency Caesarean section, Welner was the first person to hold Day's newborn daughter, Diana. It was one of the proudest moments of her career.

But Welner did far more than encourage her patients. She designed and patented a special examination table for disabled women — lower and more maneuverable than the standard ones. She lectured on the need for disabled woman to get regular gynecological checkups and mammograms, something some avoid because the equipment isn't adapted for them.

In a particularly sweet triumph, she returned to the nursing home in Connecticut and lectured the doctors who had once declared that she would function no better than a 2-year-old.

Then, in 1997, Welner's clinic was closed because of cutbacks. She was devastated. And yet, Lovitky says, as she had so often done, Welner accepted reality and moved on.

She hurled herself into her work — applying for research grants, writing a book on medical care for women with disabilities, becoming a faculty member of Georgetown and Maryland University medical centers, speaking at the United Nations, lecturing around the country and the world.

Few knew that Welner's masterful hour-long PowerPoint presentations were memorized by heart. She couldn't see her own slides.

"She just never stopped," says Lovitky. He worried sometimes about how hard Welner pushed herself, rarely getting more than a few hours sleep a night.

'There's been an accident'
And then, in an instant, everything stopped. It was Oct. 8, 2001 and the country was still reeling from the shock of the Sept. 11 attacks. Lovitky and Welner had talked about it by phone that night. It was the last real conversation they ever had.

The call jolted him awake a few hours later. "There's been an accident," said Welner's neighbor. "It's serious."

Lovitky grabbed a Bible and raced to the hospital. Swathed in bandages, a breathing tube in her throat, Sandy was barely recognizable. She had third-degree burns over 70 percent of her body. But she smiled and mouthed "I love you," and blew a kiss.

She had been lighting a memorial candle for her late father, when the flame caught her nightgown. The neighbor had broken down her door and pulled her from the fire.

The next 13 days were blur of suffering and sadness as Lovitky and Welner's mother and brother waited, willing Sandy to survive, clinging to the belief that she might. After all, this was Sandy — invincible, irrepressible Sandy. She had come back from near death once before. Surely she could again.

On Oct. 21, Lovitky whispered his last words to the woman with whom he had planned to spend his life. He doesn't even know if she heard.

She died 10 minutes later. She was 42.

In the months after Welner's death, Lovitky felt bewildered by grief and regret. He couldn't work, couldn't eat, couldn't sleep.

He went to Israel, trekked to all the most dangerous parts. Family and friends feared he had a death wish. There were times he wondered if he did.

At his darkest moment, Lovitky talked to his rabbi.

What can I do, he cried.

Do something good that will contribute to her memory, the rabbi told him.

And then Lovitky remembered the envelopes, how he would sort Sandy's money before she went on trips — putting the $1 bills in one envelope, the tens and twenties in others. He remembered her frustration at having to trust strangers for the right change.

And he realized that there was something he could do — something that could both celebrate Welner's legacy and affect the lives of millions. Elsewhere around the world, accommodations are made for the blind — different sized notes or tactile features such as raised markings.

Why not the United States?

In May 2002, Lovitky sued the Treasury Department on behalf of the American Council of the Blind, arguing that its failure to design a currency that is accessible to blind people is a form of discrimination.

In November 2006, the court ruled in favor of the Council.

"Plaintiffs have demonstrated that they lack meaningful access to U.S. currency," Judge Judith W. Rogers wrote in the ruling, which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld in May. "Even the most searching tactile examination will reveal no difference between a $100 bill and a $1 bill. The secretary has identified no reason that requires paper currency to be uniform to the touch."

The Treasury Department, which argues that a redesign of the currency would be too costly, has not said if it will fight the latest ruling.

Not about the money
Lovitky visits Welner's grave several times a year — when he travels to Pittsburgh to visit her mother. They rarely talk about the lawsuit, though they know Sandy would have been proud.

For his part, Lovitky says he feels a strange detachment about the outcome. There is little of the personal satisfaction or pride he has felt with other legal victories. He understands why. He understands the long hours he poured into this case — all the research, all the briefs, all the consultations with other lawyers — was never really about winning. Or about money.

It was about commemorating the spirit of the rare and beautiful woman who changed his life.

It was about love.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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