Monday, April 13, 2015

Real People #3

This month's story comes from a fellow Stargardt-er from my city. We live on opposite sides of Sydney and as yet have not met in person, but thanks to social media we have been able to connect and be supports for each other.

Mike Lainis, 53, Sydney, Australia

When were you diagnosed with Stargardt's and how did it affect you at the time?

My Journey with Stargardts began 5 years ago in January 2010 When I was 48 years old.  After loads of testing including blood tests and chest x-rays for TB! I was sitting in the ophthalmologist surgery blurry eyed from the "drops” and the numerous flashes of light from the fluorecein angiograph procedure (they pump you with green fluorescence in your veins and take photos of your macula all at the same time). She finally turned to me and said you have a late onset of Stargardts! I thought yes I am seeing stars at the moment,  Ok...., so my next question was what are you going to do? Laser, medication or an operation? What ! No cure! Just avoid the sun and Vitamin A supplements and see you in a year’s time, cheers.....

Wow. Went home told my wife and family, we climbed on the net for hours researching. Nothing. No cure or procedure.  I thought surely in this day and age all diseases have some kind of cure, nope, not this one. For the first three years it was more of an irritation not been able to do things I had done countless times before. 

What do you do for work and has the condition impacted you?

Throughout my life I have worked in the construction industry. I ran my own cabinet making business, for 10 years, producing some fine solid wood furniture. I slowly moved up to be a project manager.  I worked in London for 6 years on upmarket residential apartments in Kensington and Kew Gardens. I worked in Brisbane for 5 years on the prestigious David Jones Queens Plaza and Chermside stores. I worked in Sydney for the last 5 years on Hugo Boss, Coach and Thomas Sabo stores to name a few things I have done. However now I work at my kid’s school on a casual basis doing maintenance work. A far cry from what I was doing but I am at peace with that. The school has been very supportive.

What would you say are the defining moments since being diagnosed?

Late 2013 I had a "near miss" whilst driving. Nearly took out a traffic officer. Silly man was standing in the middle of an intersection! The traffic lights had stopped working, and he was directing traffic. I was looking to the left for other cars coming out of the intersection and did not see him. He was in my "blind" area of vision. I had to screech the car to a stop right in front of him. He wasn't happy with me, had the finger waving. Realizing I could have killed him I decided my driving days were over.

Then after last December holidays, maybe after too much fun in the sun, my left eye, central vision finally all went. After a visit to the ophthalmologist he declared me "legally blind". A shock to the emotions as I thought I still had a few more years to go.

What would you tell someone who is struggling with a vision impairment?

Being positive is critical in coping with this condition.

When I was at school I was involved in Scouting. Achieved the highest award (Chief Scout Award) and went on a Jamboree to America. After school I went into the army for a couple of years. In later years I was a river guide and then also lead an expedition to an Malawian Gamepark whilst been a member of the Royal Geographical Society in London.

During this time I was taught survival techniques and even ran a few courses myself. The greatest life lesson I learnt was, when you get lost in the bush or end up in a life or death situation, it is “the will to survive”. You can have all the training on how to light a fire or how to find water and food but if you give up mentally you die. The same with this condition, you can't let it take over. You need to fight it each day, develop new skills and ways of doing things. Accept the situation, you can’t change the fact you are going or are blind, and then move on with your life.

Lastly my faith in God has increased dramatically over the last few years.  God gives me the strength when I am feeling weak. My favourite scripture now is “I walk by faith not by sight" 2 Corinthians 5 vs 7. Whilst I believe Jesus is able and is willing, for us to be all healed of all diseases, I believe it is all in God's timing. There is a purpose and process to this condition in my life right now, to teach me perseverance and strength of character. 

My hope and prayer is that God will give someone the insight and wisdom to find a cure not only for one person but for all who have this condition. Hopefully one day I can be part of that process.

Thanks Mike for sharing!

Monday, April 6, 2015

Latest News on Stem Cell Research

I know everybody has been keenly following the Ocata clinical trial using human derived embryonic stem cells to treat both Stargardt's Disease and Age Related Macular Degeneration. Ocata published a  press release on 31 March. Here are the main points:

  • The Phase I/II study has been successfully completed on 38 patients with both conditions. This phase was to look at safety and dosing of the stem cells and has been reported to have no major risks or adverse events.
  • The Phase II part of the study has been given the go ahead and will also be conducted in England as well as the United States. 
  • The next phase will once again be looking at the safety and also the efficacy (ie if it improves vision) against a control group (used as a comparison for change). The effects of immuno-suppressant drug use will also be evaluated. 
What does this mean? 
It seems as though the trial is going well - since it moving ahead we can assume that there have been no major reactions from patients receiving the injections and that some benefit is being observed. The next part of the trial will recruit a greater number of participants to further evaluate what impact stem cell implantation may have on vision. The researchers will also try to find the best way of implanting the cells for greatest benefit.

There's still a little way to go before we will know for sure whether this treatment will work, although it is definitely looking positive at this stage. Generally a therapeutic trial will pass through four phases, each recruiting an increased number of patients.

I shall keep following and continue to update everyone!

Photo credit:

Sunday, March 15, 2015

How a person reads with limited central vision

I had a thought whilst lying in bed wide awake. I want others to get a sense of what it's like to live with Stargardt's. It's really hard to explain what it is like to lose something that you take for granted and use every second of the day. Then I thought to a chain email that circulated a long time ago, some of you might remember - a passage of a story was sent except the middle letters of the word were jumbled. Once you got to the end of the passage, it said that you had just read the whole story essentially spelled incorrectly, but you were able to read it.

This demonstrates how I read - my blind spot covers the middle of words, so I see the start of the word, possibly the end, and it's all a jumble. Yet I can still read it (it still needs to be in a larger font).

I've put together an example for you, have a go at reading this (beware I threw some tricky words in!):

  • Sagdtrart's Dasisee is a tpye of macualr degaeentiorn. It afefcts ynoug polepe, lkie me, and cehagns our levis frveoer. Tnihk aubot tihs, jsut as you are gitnteg uesd to lnviig yuor lfie, fgrniiug out yuor dermas and anirtapsois, tehn rnmldoay you ncoite sthniemog a liltte off in yuor viosin. The nxet tnhig you konw you're bneig tlod you hvae an ibunclrae dsasiee and wlil lsoe yuor shigt.

And just in case you got stuck, here it is written properly:

  • Stargardt's Disease is a type of macular degeneration. It affects young people, like me, and changes our lives forever. Think about this, just as you are getting used to living your life, figuring out your dreams and aspirations, then randomly you notice something a little off in your vision. The next thing you know you're being told you have an incurable disease and will lose your sight.

Imagine reading like that all the time, it does get tiring. It's as though the brain has adapted to read in a different way. The image below is of a meme that was circulated and a response was written by the Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK, which you can read here. They explain some of the reasons behind how we are capable of reading words with jumbled letters, although we apparently read 11% slower. This makes sense as I have noticed it takes me longer to read. 

I'd be really interested for those who aren't vision impaired to share their experience reading this. I hope this gives a little more understanding into how myself and others with SD read.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Today is a milestone

Today is a milestone in my journey. Apart from being my sister's birthday (Happy Birthday J!), it's also the day my driver's licence expires. 

I've held my licence since I was 16 and got my Learner's. My first care was this horrendous red Mercedes Benz station wagon that fit seven people, two backwards in the boot. It was our old family car and I think my parents gave it to me so they could keep track of where I was, because everybody knew the car and would report back to my Dad who would then phone me and ask where I was. Busted! Apart from it's hideousness, it was a sturdy, solid beast and kept everyone safe.

My second car was, once again, a dump. My Dad being a mechanic was always picking up old cars no-one wanted. This lead to my inheritance of an old blue Mitsubishi Lancer. The catch was that this car was manual, and I only knew how to drive automatic. I've never felt more uncoordinated in my life learning to drive manual. I stalled the car (not exaggerating at all) over 10 times at one intersection! Luckily, I finally got the hang of it and turned into the manual queen! 

My little Lancer got me to and from uni, and in my final year of uni I landed a full-time job and my first real income. My first purchase was a brand spanking new silver Mazda 2. She was my baby, my first really large purchase. It was only a few months after I bought my baby that I started having vision problems and was diagnosed with Stargardt's. What a slap in the face. 

I was told at that time I shouldn't be driving at all, but I'm NOT proud to say I continued to drive, only short distances and not on freeways. I know I shouldn't have but letting go was ridiculously hard. I wasn't coping with all the emotions of this diagnosis and this was another blow. 

As my vision deteriorated I knew I had to stop. That was a huge decision and something that caused me a lot of stress and anxiety. I've written about that experience previously. This was also when I decided to sell my car. It was a contributor to my rock bottom.

Even though I haven't driven for about a year, today still is a big deal. I've known this day was coming and it was always a black day in my mind. It feels as though it is now final, done, can't be changed and set in concrete. There's no chance I could renew my licence. It's almost as if I had hoped a miracle would occur and I would improve. I never lose faith until the day has passed! 

To be honest, I don't feel as bad as I thought I would. I thought I'd be feeling anxious and like my control is being taken away. Part of this lesser feeling is probably due to not having driven in a while, I essentially weaned myself of driving, then the idea of driving. I've really surprised myself and I'm surprised in my strength and positivity. 

I still hate public transport and will continue to avoid it (chauffeur wanted, enquire within!). This just gives me more motivation to succeed and bring about change for others. I want everyone else to know that it DOES get easier. I'm not going to lie and say it's a walk in the park and I don't have days when I just want to cry, but overall my outlook has changed and my drive just keeps increasing. 

It's hard to let go, but do it slowly if you can. It always looks worse when you are looking into the future, but once you're there, it's not so bad. Then when you look back, you think 'wow, I did well' and can feel proud and push yourself further. 

Stay positive and never, ever give up!

Photo credit:

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Real People #2

This month's story comes from a good friend of mine who has been a great support to me from my early days of diagnosis. I hope he can inspire you too.

Jono Goerlach, 32, Canberra, Australia

Tell us a bit about your condition and your symptoms.

At age 15 I was diagnosed with Usher Syndrome Type 2. This condition combines both Retinitis Pigmentosa, and slight-to-moderate hearing loss, which I have had since birth and wear hearing aids to combat this.

What is your current situation, what do you do?

At present, my primary focus is on being a full-time Triathlete. I've been involved in the sport for almost 3 years, building towards my end goal of qualifying for a Paralympic Games. In an effort to give myself the best opportunity to achieve this goal I chose to move to Canberra one year ago where my coach and his triathlon squad are based.

Since moving to Canberra I have also signed up to a double bachelor degree at the University of Canberra, studying Sport & Exercise Science/Sports Management.
On top of these two time-consuming responsibilities I work part-time as a Soft-Tissue Therapist to help pay the bills and maintain at least a little social life.

What was your biggest hurdle and how did you over come it?

My biggest hurdle was around the age of 26 when I reached a point in my life where the reality of my impending blindness started to come to fruition - and I wasn't even prepared for it. Initially, admitting that I was depressed and dealing with anxiety was the first step to getting back on track. The next step was to find something I was passionate about, set goals to work towards, so I could have something to focus on - sport was my passion before my diagnosis, and sport was the passion that would be the answer to moving forward. Since returning to sport my life has completely changed, to the point where I feel like I've lived two lives. I'm only just getting started :)

What are your goals for the future?

My main goal is to represent Australia at the Paralympic Games. Up until October 2014 I was focused on Rio 2016, but unfortunately that opportunity has been taken away simply due to fact that our sport has five types of disability but only three types/classes were offered a medal event. The positive, though, is that I do have an opportunity to go to the following Paralympics in Tokyo 2020.

I am also driven to finish my degrees so I can start working with athletes with a disability in areas of sporting development/management. I am also passionate about reaching out to the wider vision-impaired community to educate them and their supporters about the many opportunities there are available to them - having a disability is an opportunity to find your true abilities.

What would be your best bit of of advice for others going on a similar journey?

Find your passion and let it take over your life. Having that focus will produce more opportunities than you could imagine - life is defined by opportunities, even the ones you miss.

If you'd like to follow Jono's journey to triathlon greatness follow his Facebook page here.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Happy Rare Disease Day!

Today is Rare Disease Day to raise awareness about rare diseases and the impact these diseases have on people's lives. It is an international day held annually. 

Stargardt's Disease is considered a rare disease, with the incidence widely debated. Here are some statistics I can dig up about SD:

  • SD affects about 1 in 10 000, so in Australia there should be approximately 2 300 people with SD ( I know about 10 so the other 2 290 people please get in touch!). There should be appropriately 31 800 in the United States and 6 400 in the UK. 
  • SD accounts for 7% of all retinal degeneration. Other retinal degenerations include retinitis pigmentosa, Usher's disease and Leber congenital amaurosis.
  • SD is also knows as fundus flavimaculatus. I'm pretty certain this is what Harry Potter would have called it if he were diagnosed. 
  • It is thought that 5% of the population carry an abnormal gene for processing vitamin A. So 5% of the population have the possibility of developing a retinal disease.
  • 100% of those affected by SD are amazing people!

Here's the official video for 2015.

Spread the word and spread the love! 

To find out more information, see what events are being held locally and read other people's stories, check out these links:


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

10 Tips for Studying With a Vision Impairment

The new study year is upon us, I'll be in my final year of psychology and I'm sure there's many of you also returning to uni, school or college. I though it would be beneficial to put together a list of tips for studying with a vision impairment not just for anyone reading this but also for myself so I can stick to it throughout the year!

I have been at university now for close to ten years, half of that time I had perfect 20/20 vision, the other half I have slipped to legal blindness at 6/60. Just acknowledging this is a crazy thought - I still to this day can't fathom how I've gotten to this stage! Despite the lack of vision, I have remained determined to keep studying and find a career I love and can maintain with my vision. So here are the tips I've picked up along the way:

1. Take frequent breaks. This is a given for anybody studying, vision impaired or not. But if you have a vision impairment it is important to take more frequent breaks to give your eyes a rest and let them recharge before slaving over more readings or assignments. I try and force myself to take a break every 30 minutes, or when my eyes are starting to hurt and struggle to focus. When you take a break, make sure you do something that doesn't use your eyes. I like to put on some music or an audio book or get in a little bit of mindfulness meditation which also helps me re-focus. Find something that works for you, that gives your eyes a rest and also helps you to relax. If you take frequent breaks, you will be able to study for longer periods of time, perfect for those cram sessions!

2. Utilise adaptive technology. There is an abundance of adaptive technology options available to help in all sorts of study situations. I use Zoomtext for my computer/laptop, I use an iPad for screen reading of textbooks and documents, I have multiple hand held magnifiers for paper documents and also a CCTV. There are so many options available that can suit your needs. The best place to start is by getting in contact with a low vision service in your local area. The most important thing to remember is that it takes time to get used to using these devices and to be patient. I was extremely resistant to using a lot of them but once I got the hang of them and realised how much they help I can't do without them. 

3. Learn how to listen rather than read. This was something I was resistant of doing for a long time. It seems like a basic concept, to listen to a textbook rather than read it, but it's actually a different way of absorbing information and it takes time to get used to. I would use the reader option in iBooks on my iPad, and within 30 seconds the voice had put me to sleep! It's also harder to take in information from a long document by listening to it (especially when it's read by a computer or monotone voice). It takes some time to get used to but once you've got the hang of it you will wonder why you didn't start earlier. It gives your eyes a chance to have a break whilst still being productive and taking in information. Definitely a skill that should be honed! 

4. Be organised and prepared. This is probably my biggest downfall. I am a last minute crammer and will leave my assignments until the day they are due. Possibly because I like to torture myself. I've now learnt you CAN NOT do this when you have a vision impairment. It creates more stress and leaves you with migraines that last days. Make sure you get yourself organised at the start of semester. Plan when assignments are due and start them early so you can do a bit each day over a few weeks. Be diligent with this as you will pay the consequences if you leave things to the last minute. 

5. Build relationships with staff, students and institutions. This is important to ensure you have the support you need. Don't be afraid to ask if you need help with something or to get work in a format you can read. Find the staff members you most trust and use them as a point of information. It is also beneficial to have friends who are doing your course who can help at short notice if you need it. Having studied my last course via distance, sometimes this is hard as you don't get to meet any other students. Facebook works wonders for this and there's always someone willing to help out. The most common problem I come across is missing textbook chapters and other students have offered to scan them for me instead of waiting for the uni. 

6. Know your rights and entitlements. As I have mentioned in previous posts, sometimes you have to stand up for your rights. Everyone has the right to an education and reasonable adjustments need to be made for a person with a disability - don't let anybody tell you otherwise. Most institutions have a disability centre that can help with most things but still familiarise yourself with your rights. Don't be afraid to stand up for yourself and ask for the adjustments or resources you need to succeed.

7. Don't over commit. This is something I also tend to do - take on too many subjects. If you have just begun studying, start with a small workload and see how you go. You can then take on extra subjects in subsequent semesters. You don't want to put yourself in a position where you are stressed and don't do your best. 

8. Don't be afraid to ask for help. If you need help - ASK. Don't be embarrassed or feel that you are useless. There's nothing wrong with asking for help in any situation not just studying. Not only will this benefit yourself, it will also help others to understand your situation and the impact a vision impairment can have. It's a win win for all!

9. Find what works for you to minimise symptoms. The most common symptoms I experience are eye strain, eye pain, headaches, migraines and even nausea if I've been at it for too long. Find little tricks that work for you to help minimise these symptoms. Apart from taking breaks, try a cold compress on your eyes. This will reduce some of the pain and strain. I also use cucumbers- they actually work! Don't forget to look after yourself, get a massage to reduce tension in your head and neck from straining to see. 

10. Stay positive through the tough times. Studying is not a walk in the park. It can be hard work. It can be demanding and stressful. There will be times when you just want to throw in the towel, it's too hard, it hurts too much or it's too much of a struggle. Don't give up! You can get through it, and achieve great results. Don't let your vision be a hindrance, it doesn't need to be. It doesn't change your intelligence or your chances of success. Everything is achievable!