WASHINGTON 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 color 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.
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 sifts through a photo album. "Here's a Sandy smile," he says, plucking a picture from the page. "And here's one."
The pictures show a petite brunette nestling into his shoulder under a cherry blossom tree, playfully pushing him in an oversized beach wheelchair on the sand, clutching his arm at a black-tie event at which she was receiving yet another award.
His 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 gynecologist, 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.
It was only when they were preparing to leave, when she stood unsteadily that he realized that she had difficulty walking.
Their dates were simple: walks in the park, petting horses at 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.
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.
And so, for 16 days in Amsterdam, she read medical journals and newspapers and played classical music for her lifeless daughter anything to trigger a response. She got none.
Back in the United States, doctors offered the same grim prognosis.
Again, the mother said no.
Instead, Barbara and Nick Welner took their child home to New Haven, Conn. They read to her. They fed her. They taught her to count, to swallow, to sit up. Hour after hour, for days and months and years.
It wasn't a miracle, her mother says of her daughter's steady, excruciating recovery. It came of a determination so powerful that it burst from her broken body with a force that nothing could hold back.
But there were moments that felt like miracles. The day a friend phoned from Israel, where Sandy had worked, and she began speaking in fluent Hebrew. She hadn't forgotten a word.
"I was in awe," her mother said.
Years later, as Lovitky heard these stories, he too was in awe. But not just of the woman he had grown to love. He was also awed by the older woman who became his dear friend.
"Sandy had such spirit and such courage," Lovitky says, "but her mother did, too. Such effort, such faith."
By the time Lovitky met her, Welner's vision was severely damaged, her hands shook, and she walked with an unsteady gait. But her speech and mind were clear. And her memory was better than ever.
Lovitky marveled at her defiance. She was so dependent on others the stream of medical students she paid to help her read and write and file, on strangers to help her catch a cab. And yet, Lovitky says, "she was more independent than anyone I knew."
She went skydiving in Australia, alone. She climbed the ancient historic site, Masada, overlooking the Dead Sea in Israel.
When she eventually moved into her own apartment in Washington, she insisted on cooking great Passover seders for her family.
But the hardest challenge she faced was professional being accepted back into the medical world that had once embraced her.
Dr. Alan Decherney, a leading gynecologist and obstetrician, remembers the young woman with the cane shuffling into his office at Yale University. He told her she had little chance of practicing medicine again.
Yet something about her courage moved Decherney to let her sit in with other residents and join him on patient rounds.
She astounded him. "I had to tell her not to answer all the questions all the time," Decherney said, chuckling. "She knew more than anyone else."
With Decherney's help, Welner landed a job overseeing a clinic for women with disabilities at Washington Hospital Center. At the time, there were few resources for disabled women who wanted to get pregnant.
"Sandy didn't just understand the complications of a disabled body," said Trish Day, one of Welner's patients who became a friend. "She understood my dream."
But Welner did far more than encourage her patients. She designed a special examination table for disabled women lower and more maneuverable than the standard ones. She lectured on the need for disabled woman to get regular gynecological checkups and mammograms, something some avoid because the equipment isn't adapted for them.
Then, in 1997, Welner's clinic was closed because of cutbacks. She was devastated. And yet, as she had so often done, Welner accepted reality and moved on.
She hurled herself into her work applying for research grants, writing a book on medical care for women with disabilities, becoming a faculty member of Georgetown and Maryland University medical centers, lecturing around the country and the world.
"She just never stopped," says Lovitky.
And then, in an instant, everything stopped. It was Oct. 8, 2001. The call jolted him awake. "There's been an accident," said Welner's neighbor.
At the hospital, swathed in bandages, a breathing tube in her throat, Sandy was barely recognizable. She had third-degree burns over 70 percent 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 neighbor had pulled her from the fire.
The next 13 days were a blur of sadness as Lovitky and Welner's mother and brother waited, willing Sandy to survive. After all, she had come back from near death once before. Surely she could again.
On Oct. 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.
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. 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 realized 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 favor of the council.
"Even the most searching tactile examination will reveal no difference between a $100 bill and a $1 bill," Judge Judith W. Rogers wrote in the ruling, which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld in May. The secretary has identified no reason that requires paper currency to be uniform to the touch."
The Treasury Department, which argues that a redesign of the currency would be too costly, has not said if it will fight the latest ruling.
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. He understands why. He understands the long hours he poured into this case all the research, all the briefs, was never really about winning. Or about money.
It was about commemorating the spirit of the rare and beautiful woman who changed his life.
It was about love.