Dawn Wortman’s story has a lot in common with other folks in Salem. Her tale involves a car accident, a brain tumor, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, blindness, and anxiety which Wortman continually battles against on a daily basis, often finding serenity in the strings of her banjo, solace in the love of her family (especially her mother’s dedication), and comfort in the presence of her service dog.
“It’s pretty boring,” Wortman said of her story.
She was born and raised in Salem and graduated from Salem High School in 1990. After which, she attended Linn Tech (now State Technical College of Missouri in Linn) and graduated with a degree in technical computer programming. Wortman worked for Missouri’s department of revenue for a few years, had two daughters, Mykayla and Katelin and her life was ordinary and simple.
While still living in Linn, she was in a car accident that injured her neck and at first it seemed she’d come through the ordeal relatively unscathed.
Wortman then went to an orthopedic surgeon at the university hospital in Columbia—the doctor ordered an MRI scan, which identified a tumor growing on her brainstem—that was October 2019.
Wortman said that the car accident saved her life—without it, Wortman says she never would have had an MRI in time to discover the tumor before it claimed her life.
“I would have been dead before Christmas,” said Wortman.
Shortly after, the tumor was surgically removed, saving her life, but damaging the part of her brain that governs sight. Wortman has been legally blind ever since. Wortman can still see a sort of abstract version of reality, but nothing is clear or coherent; her eyes are also sensitive to light, which is why she’s always sporting sunglasses.
Also, when she woke up most of her memory was gone.
“When I woke up, the only person I recognized was my mom (Kay Petty),” said Wortman.
“She had to relearn everything,” said Petty. “She was like a baby,” she said.
Now Wortman lives with family in Salem.
Wortman’s path hasn’t been easy—Wortman experiences a lot of anxiousness that is exacerbated by memory loss and blindness which often leaves her feeling disoriented.
“I mean just imagine not remembering anything and not being able to see,” said Petty, who has been her daughter’s near-constant companion since Wortman’s accident and surgery.
Usually, Wortman is accompanied by her service dog, Kali—but when The Salem News first sat down with Wortman at Miss Betty’s Music and More located on Main Street across the street from Main Streets Country Corner Cafe, Kali was at the dog groomer.
“She’s at the doggy spa,” said Wortman with a grin.
“She’s a service dog for my anxiety,” said Wortman. Wortman doesn’t have a guide dog.
Before her accident and subsequent surgery, Wortman was already a musician.
“She used to play piano,” said Petty. “But can't do that anymore.”
“I learned how to play violin with my daughter, and I used to play the cello, but never anything as good as the banjo,” said Wortman. “But I don’t remember how,” said Wortman.
Wortman was only just learning how to play the banjo at the time of her accident three years ago.
“She had always wanted to play the banjo, so I bought her one for her birthday, and that’s how it started,” said Petty.
Before Wortman went blind, she was taking banjo lessons online, but that wasn’t possible anymore.
Petty said that she began looking for a teacher for Wortman, which led her to Miss Betty’s Music and More.
“I came here and saw James VanKirk,” said Petty. VanKirk has been teaching Wortman every week for about a year.
Wortman said that she knows how to read music, but that’s impossible now that she’s blind.
“He tells me what fret,” said Wortman of Vankirk. She then plays by ear, stringing together percussive gospel and bluegrass melodies.
“I couldn’t do it without God,” said Wortman. “God gives me the ability,” she said.
“She works hard at it,” Petty added.
“I deal with a lot of anxiety,” said Wortman.
The Salem News asked her what goes through her mind when she plays the banjo.
“Nothing, just music,” said Wortman.
“I just let my fingers and my mind go,” she said.
Wortman said that music provides a sort of therapy for her, when she’s focused on playing all of her troubles seem to fade away, and the perseverance that she exemplifies becomes a little easier, and the burdens that she bears are little lighter, and her mind is at peace.