What if we could end blindness forever?


I would be willing to bet you take seeing for granted.

Unfortunately, an estimated 43 million people worldwide are not so fortunate.

Today marks World Sight Day, an annual event launched to call public attention to the ancient scourge of blindness. The blind are constricted in ways the sighted could never really imagine. Virtually every step beyond the narrow confines of a memorized space is an adventure into the unknown, and even within those known spaces, chairs and table corners have a way of jumping out at you, making falls a common occurrence, along with cuts, scrapes, broken bones, and endless frustration.

I am one of those people.

The summer of my nineteenth year, home from college and pitching in a baseball game, a sudden, heavy mist seemed to rise up from the ground, obscuring everything. I threw one more pitch, behind the batter this time, and fell to the ground, completely disoriented.

I recovered from that incident, but an ophthalmologist diagnosed my incipient glaucoma as conjunctivitis, prescribed precisely the wrong medicine, and six months later, in the middle of an exam back at Columbia University, I went almost totally blind. A month on, in a Detroit hospital, a surgeon would destroy my vision for good in order to “save my eyes” — a stroke of irony if ever there was one.

That’s why World Sight Day is especially poignant for me.

Because I had my vision for nearly two decades, I understand better than most, perhaps, just how joyous sight is. That’s why I encourage those of you who can see to take a moment today to celebrate that. Open yourself to the miracle of creation that allows light to land on your eye and be transported, via the retinal-neural pathway, into the images by which you know the world.

Linger over your grandchild’s face. Watch the sun go down, marveling at those gradations of red, orange, yellow and purple as day turns to night. Look through an art book or go online to revisit the Old Masters, or maybe new ones, like Frank Stella. In my own mind, I do that constantly, flipping through a seemingly endless library of images stored in my memory, all at least 60 years old. Those images sustain me.

If your visual memory bank is more up to date than mine, celebrate that, too. And treasure it, deeply.

There is something else worth celebrating, especially on this day: Blindness is on the run.

I see it every day from my privileged position as chairman of the Board of Governors of the Wilmer Eye Institute, part of Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore. On the gizmo front, a startling array of microchips, various forms of nanotechnology and the like are literally bringing the blind and the nearly blind back into the world of the sighted, in some cases reversing decades of darkness caused by conditions like retinitis pigmentosa.

Still more promising, and more universally applicable, are the cascading breakthroughs in optic nerve cell replication, which boast the potential to rebuild the damaged neural pathways that are the root cause of so many cases of blindness.

Such breakthroughs don’t stop at vision’s door. As National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins put it: “If I were trying to understand how the brain works, I think I might choose to look [first] at vision.” Some 30 to 50 percent of the neurons in the human cerebral cortex are said to involve vision; the optic nerve itself is considered part of the brain.

Neuroscientist and Nobel Laureate Dr. Eric Kandel believes that vision research may open avenues for better understanding into how the brain works. Considering this progress, it is possible to imagine ending blindness as the pathway to ending all manner of neural-related afflictions, from paraplegia to multiple sclerosis to Alzheimer’s disease.

As wonderful as all that is, I would, on this World Sight Day, happily settle for the prospect of ending blindness alone. More than 60 years ago, lying in that Detroit hospital bed post-surgery, I promised God I would do everything I could to help bring about the day when blindness is no more, when all God’s children can not only feel the sun shining on their faces but bask in it rising and setting.

Today, I think we are getting there — and far sooner than anybody could have imagined a decade ago.

The days of blindness, I am happy to report, are numbered.

Sanford D. Greenberg is the chairman of the board of governors for Johns Hopkins University’s Wilmer Eye Institute, and the author of “Hello Darkness, My Old Friend”.

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