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Ann Roberts, 48, has been virtually blind for 23 years, yet her "mind's eye" still has 20-20 vision.

Roberts, who subsists on Social Security disability payments and gets around with the help of a seeing-eye dog named Rosalie, sees herself one day returning to work — as a call-center telephone operator, perhaps, or a scheduling clerk in a doctor's office.

"I missed the whole computer age," said Roberts, who fell ill in the mid-1990s with an infection that took root in her optic nerve and injured part of her brain.

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Ann Roberts, 48, and her seeing-eye dog Rosalie, volunteer two days a week at Erlanger Hospital.

Soon after she got sick while living in Lafayette, La., her then-husband, Pat, died from complications from pneumonia, she said. Roberts' life went south in a hurry. But now, more than two decades later, she refuses to live in her fears.

"My philosophy is: why be upset about something that you can't change?" said Roberts, who lives in Chattanooga now, getting around town on CARTA buses and volunteering two days a week at Erlanger hospital.

When she emerged from a coma in the 1990s, Roberts was completely blind. She regained a tiny bit of vision in her right eye, but otherwise doctors gave her little chance of recovering from her illness.

"I had to relearn how to sit up and walk and eat," she said. "When I got out of the hospital I weighed 99 pounds."

Doctors told Ann's parents she might eventually need to move to a nursing home, and they predicted her condition could even turn fatal.

"You've been wrong before," Ann's mother, Cindi Elias, said she scolded one of her daughter's doctors.

As the years unfolded and her health improved, Roberts would playfully tease her formerly pessimistic doctors with the question, "What kind of vegetable am I today?"

Over time, though, her underlying health problems continued. Six years ago, she said, she was found unresponsive one night and had to get emergency treatment.

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Mark Kennedy

These days, though, her health is stable and she is enrolled in a job-skills program at Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation.

Her volunteer work at Erlanger is part of that rehab. One day a week she helps sort the mail at Academic Internal Medicine, and another day she calls patients to give them appointment reminders from Erlanger's Heart and Lung Institute.

"It's just getting me back in the workforce atmosphere," she said. "With a brain injury, I can't do too many things at once."

Her job coach at Siskin, Valerie Thompson, said Roberts has flourished in her volunteer roles.

"It has helped her gain confidence," said Thompson, who has also helped Roberts navigate the city by teaching her how to use CARTA buses.

Roberts said her seeing-eye companion dog, Rosalie, is a big help, too. They've been together since June.

She said people are drawn to Rosalie, a yellow lab, while they were intimidated by her white cane.

"When I had my cane, people would look away," she said. Now, she said, she can sometimes barely get around because so many people want to walk up and pet Rosalie.

Meanwhile, her natural optimism is Roberts' biggest asset. She has high hopes of regaining more of independence, she said.

"I don't want to sit around and do nothing, I'd wither away," Roberts said. "Anyway, Rosalie needs the exercise."

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com.

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