Brent Gerrard, 42, of Sunnydale, is hoping to raise funds for vision-enhancing electronic glasses following a lifelong battle with a rare genetic eye disease
As a child, Mr Gerrard struggled with reading the blackboard in primary school and found it increasingly difficult to discern small details like the dot on top of the letter “i”.
“Eventually, I had to move to the front row to see more clearly, but even that became a challenge over time,” he says.
At the age of 11, after consulting with an eye specialist, he was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, and later he attended Prinshof School in Pretoria for the partially sighted and blind.
“I did worry about what would happen in my life and how things would progress. Like any child, the future seemed big and unknown, and this was an added level of anxiety for me,” says Mr Gerrard.
According to Dr Bruce Philips, his ophthalmologist, Stargardt disease is an inherited problem that results in atrophy and damage to the central part of the retina, called the macula.
“This generally starts to happen in the teenage years and stabilises in the late 20s, leaving the patient with a defect in their central vision of both eyes.
“There is no treatment that can stop the process, as it is genetically predetermined.”
He says devices can’t restore visual function from the damaged macula tissue, but they can enhance existing visual capabilities.
“There are many magnifiers available, ranging from hand-held magnifiers to spectacle-mounted telescopes, and the more modern camera-based electronic options, which can be projected onto a screen. The eSight glasses would seem to fit into the latter category, only offering a more sophisticated hands-free technology.“
Mr Gerrard says Stargardt disease has profoundly impacted his life.
“Certain things have gotten to me over the years, like the fact that I’ll never be able to drive or have my full independence. The diagnosis affects every area of my life, from how I am able to do everyday tasks, my home life and my work life. I have to make adaptations in all these areas and sometimes ask for help from others.
“When I stare with my face up close to an item with my nose nearly touching it to see better, these instances can be embarrassing for me as some people will tell me I need to get glasses. Unfortunately, prescription glasses cannot help Stargardt.”
Despite the challenges he faces, Mr Gerrard has been working at a hardware store in Sunnydale as a floor-sales consultant for several years.
The store’s owner, Andrew McAughey, commended his dedication and work ethic, saying, “Despite being legally blind and eligible to claim a government disability grant, he has demonstrated a desire and determination to work. He is intelligent, trustworthy, reliable, has great product knowledge, can advise on DIY-related problems, and has a good customer following.“
Previously, Mr Gerrard relied on a magnifying glass and his phone’s screen magnifier to see objects up close. However, with the advancements in technology, he now has the opportunity to improve his vision with a pair of electronic glasses called eSight4.
According to Kyle Williams, a salesperson specialising in blind and low-vision products, these wearable glasses utilise a high-speed camera, video processing software, a computer processor, and high-quality video screens to project a real-time image
The eSight glasses maximise the remaining eyesight of individuals with low vision, he says.
“Central vision loss essentially means that specific photoreceptors in the eyes are not working to capture an image. By providing increased information to the remaining functional photoreceptors, the brain is able to fill in the gaps for an improved image.”
The eSight4 glasses cost R145 000, and Jessica Rossouw, Mr Gerrard’s partner, has started a BackaBuddy campaign to raise the money for them. So far it has raised close to R20 000 in donations.
Mr Gerrard says they are grateful for the generosity they have received so far and he hopes to create more awareness about Stargardt disease.
“We don’t have the financial means to afford this, but we are immensely grateful for the support we have received from our family and friends, as well as anonymous donors. Each contribution means a great deal to us.“