Many times, optometry students gain a more personal connection to the field once they start school. One such example is here at UIWRSO: a second year student named Amy Cuevas. Amy’s fiancé, Ricky Ruzicka, suffers from Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy (LHON), which is a genetic disorder that affects central vision. Amy was already attending UIWRSO before Ricky was diagnosed with this condition. Since then, both of them have advocated for LHON research and awareness. Recently, he shared his story at our school’s Low Vision Club meeting, and now I would like to share his story with you.
Ricky named his presentation “The Invisible Stepping Stone,” which fit perfectly as he explained that everyone has stepping stones in their life, but his is one that he cannot see. He started off by sharing one of his favorite quotes from Winston Churchill: “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” Right off the bat, you could tell that Ricky has a great attitude towards the things he has overcome in his life. He explained that he had 20/20 vision until about a year ago and played sports, such as baseball. He was a normal, outgoing student, trying to achieve his certificate for plumbing and welding.
He used to play ball with some friends before class and noticed that one day, when one of his friends threw the ball at him, he got hit in the face with the ball! He could see it, but noticed that his vision was getting blurry. Amy asked him to go to the optometrist, but he delayed for four months. Once he went, the optometrist referred him to an ophthalmologist, after he observed that Ricky could not even read the big “E” in the affected eye. They noticed that his optic nerve was inflamed and pale, and insisted he get further testing. This was about the time that Amy was entering school and because they lived in Maryland at the time, he felt like he could get away with not going until Amy was settled in Texas. Once he got back to Maryland, his friends suggested he go to John Hopkins. At this point, only one eye was affected. After waiting in the ER for several hours, the ophthalmologist there suggested seeing a neuro-opthalmologist. He was hospitalized for a few days, and was then informed that he was diagnosed with LHON. It now has affected both eyes.
Ricky showed us what it looked like to have LHON versus normal vision. He mentioned that he cannot recognize faces, read, or even drive at this point because of red, black, and white floaters that are constantly present, as well as a black spot that is mostly present in his central vision (see photos below to compare). So what was his next step? Because there is no cure yet for LHON, doctors recommended that he take a “mitochondrial cocktail” including Idebenone, vitamin C, E, and omega 3 to help slow down the progression of the damage. He explained that he tried to keep working, but decided to stop once it became too dangerous to handle power tools without seeing correctly. He received a lot of different reactions from friends and family; it was difficult to hang out with friends because he couldn’t drive, and his family was “babying” him too much, to the point where he felt handicapped. At one point, he loved to just spend his time sleeping, because it was the only place he could achieve 20/20 vision again. I couldn’t imagine having this kind of experience; it was very humbling and emotional to hear that.
Ricky explained that now he is trying to keep himself busy with the help of his friends, family, and Amy. He moved to Texas with Amy and now receives many benefits (such as programs and devices to help his condition). He showed us the many devices he uses to help him see better, such as wide-ruled low vision paper and markers, digital magnifiers, and his audio player (which reads books aloud to him). He also plays in Goalball, which is a team sport for blind athletes. Even though many players who participate are not completely blind, they wear “blackout” goggles so that all players rely only on their hearing. It involves teams of three that throw a ball, which has bells in it, to the other team’s goal. It looks like a lot of fun, and Ricky is working with our school’s SVA, or Sports Vision Association, to create a team for next semester. He is also in the process of obtaining his Bachelor’s in social work and hopes to get a Master’s degree, as well.
This was an incredibly inspirational presentation to see. It gives all of the students at UIWRSO a look into someone’s life who is struggling with their vision. We are able to bridge a gap between a personal connection and our school. The fact that Ricky and Amy are working to enhance the school by educating students and starting a sports team, just proves that our school is not only focused on the what, but rather the who. We are all rooting for Ricky and hope he achieves his goal of joining the US Paralympics team for Goalball in the near future.
To keep up with Ricky’s story, make sure to see his “Through Ricky’s Eyes” page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Through-Rickys-Eyes/694956877213226
If you would like to donate to Ricky’s fund to help with his LHON, please go to: http://www.gofundme.com/83mpug