Cliff's Story

Cliff Hembree (with Sampson), 34, trauma

Cliff Hembree (with Sampson), 34, trauma - Audio sound bite (4.12MB mp3, TRT 2:59)

Cliff Hembree was a Tuscaloosa County police officer, injured in the line of duty. While responding to a domestic violence call he was struck by a vehicle, driven by the woman who made the call. He was thrown against his unit, ricocheted off and thrown down the road. His brain injuries registered over twice the trauma that Shepherd Center: A Catastrophic Care Hospital, in Atlanta, normally sees and they credit his good physical condition and a ballistic vest to saving his life.

Cliff lost all of his vision that night, as well as suffering severe brain injuries. His optic nerve damage is rare. As he explains it: “Your eye is basically the camera. The optic nerve is the little film guy. He runs it to the camera store in the back of your brain. The back of your brain is the Eckerd’s that develops it.”

That process no longer works for Cliff. In its place Cliff sees hallucinogenic images of cartoon- like figures, a symptom of Charles Bonnet Syndrome in which the brain sends out random imagery. Amazingly, he maintains a positive spirit and feels he and his wife Lisa are stronger than ever. He received Sampson, a guide dog, three years ago. “It’s given me a lot of independence. Sampson and I have gained a lot of camaraderie and love with each other.”

“I have grown closer to God through this process. He kept me alive for a reason. He’s told me I’m going to see again one day. We’re regular church goers and grow together spiritually, Lisa and I both. It’s brought us together. I respect her for what she’s been through and what she’s given up and what she’s had to...it’s hard for her to deal with someone who has a brain injury and who’s blind. I worry about that some. And then she deals...she’s pretty damn strong about it.”

What Cliff sees

Illustration showing how Cliff sees

The overall background is a smooth, solid black. Within the black field are small, light-green specs that vary in shape, size, and orientation. Some fade in and out while others appear and disappear more quickly. Shadows are sometimes present as well. Due to Charles Bonnet Syndrome, a cartoon-like image appears over the background. It’s not a recognizable cartoon but rather an image composed of eyes, arms, legs, and other things wrapped around each other in something resembling a football tackle.