Loss of Sight Brings Greater Vision for Laughlin

​Debra Laughlin, CRNA, loved her job. Working as a nurse anesthetist since 1989, she was on staff at Atlantic Anesthesia in 1996 when she was diagnosed with cone-rod dystrophy, a hereditary disorder which slowly caused her central vision to deteriorate.
“The prognosis is, ‘Sorry, there’s nothing we can do,'” said Laughlin, whose condition worsened until 2007, when her vision got to the point where she could no longer work.
“When I had to stop working, it was devastating,” she said. “I fell into a deep despair.”
Laughlin’s condition is classified as a low-vision disorder like macular degeneration. While not technically blind, her central vision reached a point where she had extreme near-sightedness and had to angle her head to view objects and people in her peripheral vision.
“To go from someone who was fiercely independent to [asking], ‘Can you take me to the grocery store?’” said Laughlin. “That loss of independence is a tough pill to swallow.”
A Y'Not patron experiments with
a vision-inhibiting mask.
A friend recognized her tough emotional situation and feelings of isolation and asked Laughlin if she wanted to go to VISIONS, the national conference of the Foundation Fighting Blindness.
“I was astounded to  see there were a lot of people just like me,” she said. “I felt very empowered.”
The realization that there were so many people with vision disorders—almost 10 million Americans—but there was so little public awareness made Laughlin want to bring more widespread attention to their struggles.
She became involved with the FFB. VisionWalk is the Foundation’s signature fundraising event started in 2006 which has raised $25 million to date for sight-saving research (the Foundation has raised over $500 million since its inception since 1971). The FFB helped fund early research for the recently FDA-approved Argus II retinal prosthesis, a tiny device placed inside the eye that can allow profoundly impaired people to see basic shadows and large shapes. It’s also funded gene therapy treatments, where researchers are able to inject a healthy gene using a virus that carries it to the eye’s damaged retina in hope of regeneration.
“I think we’re right on the cusp of finding a treatment,” said Laughlin.
For her part, she’s coordinating the second Hampton Roads VisionWalk on April 28 near her home in Virginia Beach. She said her first walk was a huge success, with 600 people participating (Laughlin had hoped for 100), raising $78,000 (their goal was $40,000). More important than the monetary goals, Laughlin said the walk shone a light on people with vision disorders." 
Debra Laughlin, center, poses
at a VisionWalk.
“People who walked by asked, ‘Who are you guys?’” she said. “It gave the blind and vision-impaired community a chance to talk and commune with one another.”
In addition to the walks, Laughlin works with a local restaurant, Y’Not Pizza, to sponsor Dining in the Dark nights, where patrons are invited to wear special masks that simulate two retinal diseases—retinitis pigmentosa and macular degeneration. 
“They find those glasses to be a little disturbing,” she said. “[But] it gives you an idea.”
The restaurant also donated 10 percent of the entire day’s proceeds from all four of its locations to VisionWalk.
Laughlin spends two or three days a month giving presentations about vision disorders to local schools and community organizations.
“It’s important for me to have people understand,” she said. And, not letting her loss of sight keep her down, she volunteers in the surgery waiting room front desk to stay in touch with her CRNA roots.
Laughlin has taken what, for many, would be a debilitating disease and used it to fire her motivation to raise the public’s awareness and help research funding. She’s devoted to making life better for the current generation of vision-impaired Americans while, hopefully, giving sight to the next generation.
For more information on VisionWalk, or to make a donation, visit www.visionwalk.org.

 Facts About Vision Disorders


From the National Foundation on Blindness:

  • Each year 75,000 more people in the United States will become blind or visually impaired.

  • It is estimated that as many as 10 million Americans are blind or visually impaired.

  • Studies show that over the next 30 years aging baby boomers will double the current number of blind or visually impaired Americans.

  • A Gallup poll shows that blindness is the third most feared physical condition in our nation, surpassed only by fears of cancer and AIDS. Recognized as one of the top four contributing factors for loss of independence.

  • Just 1% of the blind population is born without sight. The vast majority of blind people lose their vision later in life because of macular degeneration, glaucoma, and diabetes.

  • Macular degeneration affects about 13 million Americans.

  • Among working-age blind adults 70% remain unemployed, despite the federal and state annual rehabilitation expenditures of over $250 million.

  • There are 93,600 blind or visually impaired school age children in the U.S.