Anne Ford 2016-09-27 10:23:21
Doug Stewart, a physics teacher until his vision deteriorated, has hope his vision will improve thanks to Lions and an innovative stem cell treatment. A mother’s chance meeting with a Lion may mean her son will regain his vision. Grapevine Gifts carries just about anything anyone in Lake Jackson, Texas, might need, from scented candles to cigar cutters. But when Calista Stewart walked into the shop one day in March, she was after something that wasn’t on the shelves. She tracked down the owner, an acquaintance of hers named Ron Martin. “Hey,” she said. “Remember how a long time ago, you said you were active in the Lions club, and that if we ever needed help, that’s what you were there for?” Martin nodded. “How serious were you?” she asked. “Dead serious,” he said. “What do you need?” What she needed had its origin some 30 years before, when Calista and her husband had a baby boy, Doug. Doug was a happy, healthy kid with just one quirk: He seemed to always be bumping into things, even things in plain sight. “We just thought he was kind of a klutzy little boy,” his mom remembers. In sixth grade, during a routine eye exam, Doug was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic disorder in which the cells of the retina—the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye—break down. The disease might leave Doug with diminished eyesight all his life. Or it might steal his vision completely by the time he turned 50. There was no way to know. It was a long ride home after the appointment. “We were all pretty much devastated,” Calista remembers. “Doug’s biggest concern was, ‘Mom, Dad, will I be able to drive?’ Because he was only 12 years old. We said, ‘We don’t know, sweetie. We’ll just have to play it by ear.’” Doug did retain enough vision to get his driver’s license a few years later. And a few years after that, he obtained his college degree and secured a job teaching high school physics. “That was my first job and my first love in life, teaching,” Doug says. “It’s pretty amazing, the impact you can have on someone’s life.” But a few years into his career, his eyesight grew exponentially worse. “All of a sudden, the ball started rolling down the hill a lot faster,” he says. “Before, I could drive at night somewhat comfortably within local areas, as long as there were streetlamps.” (Retinitis pigmentosa attacks night vision and peripheral vision first.) After he learned that his visual field had diminished to only about 20 percent of normal, he stopped driving at night altogether. And, knowing that his eyesight would likely continue to decline, he quit teaching. “I couldn’t imagine being a teacher and being blind,” he says. “It just seemed impossible to me.” Instead, he took a job as a software developer, but even that required major adaptations. “Any time it gets dark out, I essentially can’t leave my house, so I have a modified work schedule, because I need to allow time for getting groceries and things of that nature,” he explains. “Fortunately, my company’s been very accommodating.” Still, being housebound so much of the time was no joke. As his mother puts it: “It makes for a very lonely existence when you have to plan your entire life around daylight.” One day in February, everything changed. Doug learned of something taking place in Florida called the Stem Cell Ophthalmology Treatment Study. A federally approved clinical trial that began in 2013, the study aims to evaluate the use of stem cells for the treatment of certain eye diseases—including retinitis pigmentosa. In the trial, doctors take bone marrow out of a patient’s hip, then inject the stem cells from that marrow into the patient’s eyes. If all goes well, the stem cells turn into specialized cells that regenerate or repair the damaged tissue. Some patients who have participated in the trial have seen extraordinary results. One has gone from having 20/4,000 vision to 20/40 vision. Another was legally blind when he had the surgery; now he’s able to drive. But the results aren’t predictable—and may be temporary. In the case of a patient with retinitis pigmentosa, the procedure doesn’t fix the underlying genetic issue; it simply restores some of the cells that the disease has attacked. Still, even if the surgery didn’t restore Doug’s vision, perhaps it would at least arrest the progression of his disease for a while. Lion Ron Martin of Grapevine Gifts rallied Lions behind Stewart after a chance encounter in his store with Stewart’s mother. The only catch: Because the trial is only federally approved— not federally funded—patients had to bear the $19,600 cost. That was much, much more money than Doug or his parents could afford. And that was why, one ordinary March day, Calista Stewart walked into Grapevine Gifts and asked if the Lions could do anything to help. ‘This is What We Do’ “Everyone in town knows we’re Lions. I mean everybody,” says Martin, a past governor of District 2-S4 who, along with his business partner Jeff Rae, belongs to the Brazosport Breakfast Lions Club in Lake Jackson. “Everybody who works for us is a Lion. My sisters are Lions. Most of my nephews and nieces are Lions. Everybody.” And if they aren’t, they soon will be. At least, that’s the feeling you get from the affable Martin, who spends much of his time traveling on behalf of the Lions as a new club development consultant. Raising close to $20,000? That was nothing, he thought. He remembers telling Calista, “‘Okay, we’ll take care of this. This is what we do.’” Calista’s recollection is a little more dramatic. “I almost passed out right there,” she says. “It was a good thing I was holding onto the counter. I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. I wasn’t coming in asking for someone to pay for everything. I was just asking if you knew what organization or what government agency to go to.’ And he said, ‘No, no, that’s what we’re there for.’” One of the first people Martin called to get the ball rolling was Billy Gray, a member of the Lake Jackson Lions Club. Like Martin, Gray was immediately convinced of the need to help Doug. “We can’t afford to pick up every single person’s problem out there, but Doug had a special need,” Gray says. “It was the chance of a lifetime.” As Martin puts it: “If you could give someone their eyesight back, why wouldn’t you?” Gray wasted no time in convincing the owner of five local Sonic fast-food joints to let nine Lions clubs sell $10 coupons to the restaurants, with half the proceeds going to Sonic and half to Doug’s cause. At first the money trickled in. Then, after an article about Doug’s situation appeared in the local newspaper, it started gushing. Not only did the Sonic tickets get snapped up, but people made direct monetary contributions as well. Doug’s employer and colleagues ponied up, too. Within 30 days, the fund for Doug stood at $22,107— enough to cover the cost of the trial plus travel expenses. And in May, he and his mom flew to Florida for the surgery. Immediately afterward, it was hard for Doug not to feel disappointed by the results. First of all, “he looked like he’d been through a bar fight,” Calista says. “His eyes were all swollen and black and blue.” Second, even after the swelling went down, his eyesight didn’t seem any better. His doctor counseled patience, as well as the knowledge that it could take up to nine months for him to notice any benefit. “It took me back a little bit,” Doug says. “But my mom was there to remind me that nine months in the grand scheme of things—maybe 10, 20, 30 years of regained eyesight— is nothing. She goes, ‘You know you can handle that,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I can.’” As Doug and his family wait to learn the full effects of the surgery, they continue to be grateful to everyone who helped make it possible. “If it weren’t for the Lions club and my company, there would be no way that I could have done the procedure without being in a whole bunch of debt,” he says. “With the student loans I’ve already got, I would have been in debt for the rest of my life, essentially.” And if the surgery turns out to have no effect on his eyesight? “Even if it doesn’t work for him, what the doctors learn from the surgery will help other people in the long run, so we’re on the right path,” Doug says cheerfully. In other words, it wouldn’t make the Lions regret their help one bit. Martin and Billy Gray enlisted the help of Sonic restaurants to raise money for Stewart. Nor would it decrease the appreciation that Doug and his family feel. “Our whole family is so grateful to the Lions for giving him a chance at improving his eyesight,” Calista says. “If we can just arrest the progression of the disease, even if just for a little while, it would be such a blessing. And if it happens that he’s in the percentage that doesn’t see any change, well, he knows he tried, and he and our whole family are so thankful.” Meanwhile, she’s got something to keep her mind occupied while they wait: “I want to join a Lions club.” Extra Digital Content Lions have saved vision and helped the blind since the first years of Lionism. Read how Helen Keller in 1927 praised Lions in asserting that their “attitude toward the blind is something new in the world” (December 1927 LION). The Rev. Wilmore Kendall, a blind minister from Tulsa, Oklahoma, says Lions are the “star that has arisen upon the world of the blind” in a speech at the 10th International Convention in San Francisco (August 1926 LION). International President Benjamin Jones of New Jersey explains the Lions’ “campaign against blindness” (April 1926 LION).
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
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