We’re two people with one pair of eyes

16 Oct, 2017

Seeing the same movie twice at the cinema is something people do because they love a film. For Pam and Noel, it was something they did out of love for each other as they are both vision impaired.

Pam was born with no iris’ causing extremely low vision and later in life blisters formed on the backs of her eyes and burst, which left her with even less vision. It meant when Pam and her husband Noel, who have been married for 51 years, went to see a film she would need to sit in the very front row. Noel on the other hand, has a hereditary condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa (commonly known as RP with the effect of tunnel vision) and his vision impairment meant he would need to sit at the back of the cinema to be able to make sense of the images on the big screen. Rather than sit separately, Noel and Pam would accompany each other to the movies and it is this companionship and love that has got them through some of life’s greatest challenges.

Noel remembers when he lost his sight completely. It was 25th September 1987. Noel had been on a phone call that evening and when he finished the call, he walked out of the darkened room into the kitchen and thought he could see their dog on the floor. They did have a black dog at the time however what he was seeing wasn’t the dog, it was a black patch and, “that was that, my sight had gone,” recalls Noel.

Pam maintains she had a normal upbringing. “As far as I was concerned I had normal sight and a normal childhood”. Pam went to school at St Patrick’s, a catholic primary school in Fortitude Valley and then went on to Ascot State School. It wasn’t until Grade six that her vision impairment was noticed, “I used to have to walk up to the blackboard and find out what the work was – my teacher at the time noticed this and told my mother that I should go to Blind School as I was getting in the way of the other students!” And so Pam went to the Blind School where she had a desk, a big magnifying glass and lights over the desk to see more clearly.

Pam and Noel met in 1964 and were married in 1966. Over the 51 years they have been married they have supported one another through many things including travel, study and work. Where one of them couldn’t see, the other would be the eyes. Noel would read to Pam and Pam would help Noel at nighttime. “We’re two people with one pair of eyes,” says Pam. “Things just happen, you can’t really complain, it just happens. But we’re lucky to have each other, we have a special bond, we always have. We support each other and put one and other at ease.”

Pam had cataracts removed in 1968 and 1981 and couldn’t have lense replacement due to stigmatisms in both eyes, she now also suffers from glaucoma. There is currently no cure for Glaucoma or Retinitis Pigmentosa however the extensive research being undertaken at the Queensland Eye Institute Foundation (QEIF) means finding the cure is getting closer. Both Noel and Pam have organised to donate their eyes for research. As two people who have lived with vision impairment they have experienced the effects it has on a loved one, they know the importance of research and have had a long time interest in the work QEIF does.

Professor, Damien Harkin from QEIF specialises in developing techniques for treating blindness by replacing the cells that have been lost through disease.

“With Retinitis Pigmentosa, some patients are affected by loss of healthy retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells,” says Professor Harkin. “The technology now exists to grow new RPE cells in the laboratory and we’ve been able to grow these cells on membranes prepared from silk protein. Working with our colleagues at the Lions Eye Institute in Perth, the next step is to see if the RPE cells grown on silk, are able to sustain vision in animals that naturally develop a form of retinitis pigmentosa”.

Alternatively, with patients like Pam, Professor Harkin and his team have developed a technique for repairing the surface of the eye using a combination of two stem cell types found naturally in donor eye tissue. “Our preclinical studies have produced promising results and we’re now ready to explore the potential benefits of this new therapy for patients like Pam,” he added.

Pam and Noel both feel that QEIF’s focus on Clinical Care, Research and Education is invaluable with saving people’s sight. One particular aspect which resonates with them is the Grand Rounds.

Each Grand Round held at QEIF covers a specific ophthalmic specialty and includes patients for examination and case discussions. Pam and Noel have donated their time to present with their Doctor to Ophthalmic specialists from across southeast Queensland. Doctors from regional and remote areas can access via a live broadcast too. “We’ve enjoyed being involved with the Grand Rounds and supporting QEIF with its Education program. It’s an valuable service for rural and remote doctors so that they can have access to the same level of education and professional development that doctors from inner city areas have.