It’s all about love

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 colour 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 shared it.

Distinguish a $1 bill 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.

In his second-floor office, Lovitky’s 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. On their first date, at an Irish pub in April 1994, he felt an instant attraction to the radiant young woman with the gentle brown eyes and tumble of dark curls.

She told him about her practice as a gynaecologist, 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.

Walks in the park It was only when they were preparing to leave, when she stood unsteadily that he realised that she had difficulty walking.

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.

Gradually, he learned what had happened in those terrible days back in 1987. She was almost 30, already a leading expert on fertility and women’s reproductive health. She had a large circle of friends, a thriving career as a micro-surgeon and no shortage of suitors.

Traveling alone on vacation in Europe, Welner fell ill and 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.

Beautiful daughter 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.

Now doctors were saying she should be locked away.

“Not my Sandy,” the mother said. “Sandy had such spirit and such courage,” Lovitky says.

And then, in an instant, everything stopped. It was in October 8, 2001. The call jolted him awake. “There’s been an accident,” said Welner’s neighbour.

Barely recognisable At the hospital, swathed in bandages, a breathing tube in her throat, Sandy was barely recognisable. She had third-degree burns over 70 per cent 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 neighbour had pulled her from the fire. The next 13 days were blur of sadness as Lovitky and Welner’s mother and brother waited, willing Sandy to survive.

On October 21, Lovitky whispered his last words to the woman with whom he had planned to spend his life. She died 10 minutes later. She was 42.

Grief and regret In the months after Welner’s death, Lovitky felt bewildered by grief and regret. He went to Israel, trekked to all the most dangerous parts. Family and friends feared he had a death wish.

At his darkest moment, Lovitky talked to his rabbi.

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.

And he realised 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 favour of the Council.

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

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