Judge counts his blessings while slowly going blind

February 9, 2015

Allison Pancol shifts on the second row of the Pendleton Middle School bleachers, leans closer to her father. Her words flow quickly, softly.

In George Pancol's ears the syllables glimmer, pearls of description, each a precious image in his mind's eye.

He wants to live. He decided that right away. He wants to enjoy life. In this moment, one concern is paramount: Elijah's game, in Allison's words.

"Cole is bringing the ball up. Passes to Eli on the wing. Eli passes to Damieon. Over to Christian. Over to Karsten. Karsten dribbles. Drives in. Shoots. It's blocked. Eli with a shot, fouled."

George smiles. Elijah is his grandson. Allison is his eyes.

George Pancol, judge of Madison Circuit Court 2, is going blind.

The doctors can't agree why. Some say it's retinitis pigmentosa. Others believe he has an autoimmune disease.

Whatever the cause of his vision loss, Pancol sees some things, figuratively, with greater clarity than before: the beauty of time at home with wife Anne, the significance of his career on the bench, the excitement of Elijah's basketball games.

By her own admission, Allison is no expert commentator. But her father tells The Herald Bulletin he likes listening to her better than catching a game on the radio. With his own personal play-by-play person at his side, Pancol can ask questions to bring those precious images in his mind into sharp focus.

When Allison gets caught up in the action of the game and description dries up on her tongue, George nudges her, prompts her to get back on track.

George Pancol, 62, has Anne and Allison and Elijah and the rest of a strong family to keep him on track. The journey into blindness isn't pleasant.

The journey started in 2012.

After Pancol had cataract surgery and a crystal lens implanted, blind spots cropped up.

"I went for an eye test, and the doctor said something looked wrong," Pancol recounts. "When I went back for another test, my vision had gotten to the point where ... I was just seeing a small area."

Pancol was willing to endure any hardship to halt the descent into darkness. At one point, he suffered through chemotherapy.

Hundreds of visits to doctors and clinics did nothing to stop his advancing vision loss, though a current medication seems to have slowed it.

"At first, it was like a race against the clock, because we were trying to see all these doctors," Anne explains. "We kept trying to find out what the issue is before he went totally blind. It was like a roller coaster for two years."

Acceptance eventually followed denial. The family remains Pancol's touchstone of hope.

"Finally we got to the point where this is the way it's going to be," Anne says. "You're going to be blind. We started looking into what we could do."

In the beginning, the onslaught of blindness knocked Pancol's breath out. He briefly questioned whether he wanted to live.

"What will I be able to do?" he asked himself.

He soon found the answer.

"It never came to the point where it got to 'poor me' or I broke down. Maybe I can't see TV anymore, but I can listen to sports on Sirius radio."

Pancol pities some of the blind. A dentist, for example, simply can't work without decent eyesight. But Pancol never felt sorry for himself.

"I never came to the place where I said to God, 'Why me?' I gradually accepted it."

Pancol and his family pray for a miracle, hoping that continuing research will formulate an antidote to his blindness. They have faith it will happen.

All the while, he counts his blessings.

"I look at all the great things: All my family is healthy, and everyone is doing great," Pancol says. "I have a dear friend that is battling cancer. I told him I will give up my miracle for you. There are people out there in a lot worse shape than I am."

Throughout the battle, Pancol's family has sustained him. In particular, his grandchildren — his "Little Chihuahuas" — have buoyed his spirits. There's a story, actually a joke, behind the term of endearment.

Two blind men walk into a bar with their dogs. The bartender says, "You can't bring a dog in here." So one of the blind men says, "But I need my service dog to guide me." The bartender says OK and serves him a drink.

The second blind man says his is a service dog, too. The bartender laughs, "That's no service dog. That's a Chihuahua!"

The second man, looking stunned and upset, exclaims, "They sold me a Chihuahua!"

Pancol laughs. He has an actual Chihuahua, a cute little number named Hally. He also has his "Little Chihuahuas."

"I ask where is my Chihuahua, and my grandkids come over," Pancol explains. "I put my hand on their elbow, and they guide me."

George and Anne have always enjoyed traveling. They still do. Recent journeys have taken them to California and Florida.

"He is seeing life through my eyes now," Anne says. "What's going on here, I'll tell him. We do a lot more talking."

George Pancol was born to be a judge. His father, George Sr., was a veteran on the bench in Madison County, and George Jr. followed him into law.

Elected in 2014 to his second six-year term as judge, Pancol leans heavily on advancements in technology that enable him to perform his duties.

At the courthouse, Pancol has computer software that scans documents and then reads aloud to him. He uses voice-recognition software to input documents into the computer system.

Brittni Buck, a court reporter for Pancol for seven years, notes that he remains independent at work, not a burden on the staff but an experienced, capable, thoughtful and productive judge.

Working with the blind Pancol "has not been a whole lot different, because of all the technology," she says. "He dictates orders and things to me, anyway. He didn't have to type a lot before."

Back when Pancol began to lose his vision, the court staff knew something was wrong almost as soon as he did.

"He said, 'I'm not seeing well.' He didn't know what was going on," she remembers.

The onset of blindness would change anyone. But Pancol's irrepressible spirit still pervades his office and courtroom.

"We never see him depressed," Buck says. "That surprises me. He's always so upbeat."

At the age of 60, before darkness closed in, Pancol saw blind people and thought, "That poor person. How do they get along?"

He knows now, with the support of family and friends, he can live a full life.

When he talks to people, he remembers their faces. But there are certain sights he misses dearly.

"I miss seeing my youngest daughter (Samantha) perform," he explains. "My granddaughter dances and sings with the Pendletones. I miss seeing Anne grow old. I would love to see my grandson play basketball."

On the bleachers at Pendleton Middle School, Allison leans in closer, describing the action on the court, the triumphs and setbacks for Elijah and his teammates.

Allison and the rest of the family around him, they're his eyes.

Pancol's soul? They're all part of that, too. Blindness couldn't touch that.

"I thought this would shake my faith in God, and it hasn't a bit," he says. "I'm so grateful for the other things in life."


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