October is Blindness Awareness month. In honor of the patients who suffer from diseases of blindness and of the scientists and doctors who work tirelessly to develop treatments and cures for these diseases, we are featuring an interview with Kristin Macdonald, a woman who is challenged by Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP).
RP is a genetically inherited disease that affects the photoreceptors at the back of the eye in an area called the retina. It’s a hard disease to diagnose because the first signs are subtle. Patients slowly lose their peripheral vision and ability to see well at night. As the disease progresses, the window of sight narrows and patients experience “tunnel vision”. Eventually, they become totally blind. Currently, there is no treatment for RP, but stem cell research might offer a glimmer of hope.
Kristin Macdonald was the first patient treated in a CIRM-funded stem cell trial for RP run by Dr. Henry Klassen at UC Irvine. She is a patient advocate and inspirational speaker for the blind and visually impaired, and is also a patient ambassador for Americans for Cures. Kristin is an amazing woman who hasn’t let RP prevent her from living her life. It was my pleasure to interview her to learn more about her life’s vision, her experience in CIRM’s RP trial, and her thoughts on patient advocacy and the importance of stem cell research.
Q: Tell us about your experience with being diagnosed with RP?
I was officially diagnosed with RP at 31. RP is a very difficult thing to diagnose, and I had to go through a series of doctors before we figured it out. The signs were there in my mid-to-late twenties, but unfortunately I didn’t really know what they were.
Being diagnosed with RP was really surprising to me. I grew up riding horses and doing everything. I had 20/20 vision and didn’t need any reading glasses. I started getting these night vision symptoms in my mid-to-late 20s in New York when I was in Manhattan. It was then that I started tripping, falling and getting clumsy. But I didn’t know what was happening and I was having such a great time with my life that I just denied it. I didn’t want to acknowledge that anything was wrong.
So I moved out to Los Angeles to pursue an acting and television career, and I just kept ignoring that thing in the brain that says “something’s wrong”. By the time I broke my arm for the second time, I had to go to see a doctor. And that’s when they diagnosed me.
Q: How did you boost yourself back up after being diagnosed with RP?
RP doesn’t come with an instruction booklet. It’s a very gradual adjustment emotionally, physically and spiritually. The first thing I did was to get out of denial, which was a really scary place to be because you can break your leg that way. You have to acknowledge what’s happening in life otherwise you’ll never get anywhere or past anything. That was my first stage of getting over denial. As I slowly started to accept things, I learned to live in the moment, which in a way is a big thing in life because we should all be living for today.
I think the fear of someone telling you that you’re going to go into the dark when you’ve always lived your life in the light can be overwhelming at times. I used to go to the mall and sometimes a door to a store would be gone or an elevator that I used to see is gone. What I did to deal with these fears and changes was to become as proactive as possible. I enlisted all of the best people around me in the business. I started doing charitable work for the Center for the Partially Sighted and for the Foundation for Fighting Blindness. I sat on the board of AIRSLA.org, an internet radio service for the blind and visually impaired, where I still do my radio show. Through that, I met other people who were going through the same type of thing and would come into my home to teach me independent living skills.
I remember the first day when an independent living counselor from the Center for the Partially Sighted came to my house and said we have to check in and see what your adjustment to blindness is like. Those words cut through me. “Adjustment to blindness”. It felt like I was going to prison, that’s how it felt like to me back then. But I am so glad I reached out to the Center for the Partially Sighted because they gave me invaluable instructions on how to function as a blind person. They helped me realize I could really live a good life and be whole, and that blindness would never define me.
I also worked a lot on my spiritual side. I read a lot of positive thinking books and found comfort in my faith in god and the support from my family, friends and my boyfriend. I can’t even enumerate how good they’ve been to me.
Q: How has being blind impacted your ability to do the things you love?
I’m a very social person, so giving up my car and suddenly being confined at night was crushing to me. And we didn’t have Uber back then! During that time, I had to learn how to lead a full life socially. I still love to do salsa dancing but it’s tricky. If I stand on the sidelines, some of the dancers will pass you by because they don’t know you’re blind. I also learned how to horseback ride and swim in the ocean – just a different way. I go in the water on a surf leash. Or I ride around the ring with my best friend guiding me.
Q: What treatments have you had for RP?
I investigated just about everything that was out there. [Laughs] After I was diagnosed, I became very proactive to find treatments. But after a while, I became discouraged because these treatments either didn’t work or still needed time for the FDA to give approval.
I did participate in a study nine years ago and had genetically modified cells put into my eye. I had two surgeries: one to put the cells in and one to take them out because the treatment hadn’t done anything. I didn’t get any improvement, and that was crushing to me because I had hoped and waited so long.
I just kept praying, waiting, reading and hoping. And then boom, all the sudden I got a phone call from UC Irvine saying they wanted me to participate in their stem cell trial for RP. They said I’d be the third person in the world to have it done and the first in their clinical trial. They told me I was to be the first North American patient to have progenitor cells put in my eye, which is pretty amazing.
Q: Was it easy to decide to participate in the UC Irvine CIRM-funded trial?
Yes. But don’t get me wrong, I’m human. I was a little scared. It’s a new thing and you have to sign papers saying that you understand that we don’t exactly know what the results will be. Essentially, you are agreeing to be a pathfinder.
Luckily, I have not had any adverse effects since the trial. But I’ve always had a great deal of faith in stem cells. For years, I’ve been hearing about it and I’ve always put my hopes in stem cells thinking that that’s going to be the answer for blindness.
Q: Have you seen any improvements in your sight since participating in this trial?
I was treated a year ago in June. The stem cell transplant was in my left eye, my worse eye that has never gotten better. It’s been about 15 months now, and I started to see improvement after about two months following the treatment. When I would go into my bathroom, I noticed that it was a lot brighter. I didn’t know if I was imagining things, but I called a friend and said, “I don’t know if I’m imagining things but I’m getting more light perception in this eye.”
Sure enough, over a period of about eight months, I had gradual improvement in light perception. Then I leveled off, but now there is no question that I’m photo sensitive. When I go out, I use my sunglasses, and I see a whole lot more light.
Because I was one of the first patients in the trial, they had to give me a small dose of cells to test for safety. So it was amazing that a smaller dose of cells was still able to help me gain back some sight! One of the improvements that I’ve had is that I can actually see the image of my finger waving back and forth on my left side, which I couldn’t before when I put mascara on. I say this because I have put lip pencil all over my mouth by accident. That must have been a real sight! For a woman, putting on makeup is really important.
Q: What was your experience like participating in the UC Irvine trial?
Dr. Klassen who runs the UC Irvine stem cell trial for RP is an amazing person. He was in the room with me during the transplant procedure. I have such a high regard and respect for Dr. Klassen because he’s been working on the cure for RP as long as I’ve had it. He’s someone who’s dedicated his life to trying to find an answer to a disease that I’ve been dealing with on a day-to-day basis.
Dr. Klassen had the opportunity to become a retinal surgeon and make much more money in a different area. But because it was too crushing to talk to patients and give them such a sad diagnosis, he decided he was going to do something about it. When I heard that, I just never forgot it. He’s a wonderful man and he’s really dedicated to this cause.
Q: How have you been an advocate for RP and blindness?
I’ve been an advocate for the visually impaired in many different aspects. I have raised money for different research foundations and donated my time as a host and an MC to various charities through radio shows. I’ve had a voice in the visually impaired community in one way or another on and off for 15 years.
I also started getting involved in Americans for Cures only a few months ago. I am helping them raise awareness about Proposition 71, which created CIRM, and the importance of funding stem cell research in the future.
I may in this lifetime get actual vision again, a real second vision. But in the meantime, I’ve been working on my higher self, which is good because a friend of mine who is totally blind reminded me today, “Kristin, just remember, don’t live for tomorrow just getting that eye sight back”. My friend was born blind. I told him he is absolutely right. I know I can lead a joyful life either way. But trust me, having a cure for RP would be the icing on the cake for me.
Q: Why is it important to be a patient advocate?
I think it’s so important from a number of different aspects, and I really felt this at the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) conference in San Francisco this summer when certain people came to talk to me afterwards, especially researchers and scientists. They don’t get to see the perspective of the patient because they are on the other side of the fence.
I think it’s very important to be a patient advocate because when you have a personal story, it resonates with people much more than just reading about something or hearing about something on a ballot. It’s really vital for the future. Everybody has somebody or knows somebody who had macular degeneration or became visually impaired. If they don’t, they need to be educated about it.
Q: Tell us about your Radio Show.
My radio show “Second Vision” is about personal development and reinventing yourself and your life’s vision when the first one fails. It was the first internet radio show to support the blind and visually impaired, so that’s why I’m passionate about it. I’ve had scores of authors on there over the years who’ve written amazing books about how to better yourself and personal stories from people who have overcome adversity from all different types of challenges in terms of emotional health, physical health or problems in their lives. You can find anything on the Second Vision website from interviews on Reiki and meditation to Erik Weihenmayer, the blind man who climbed the seven summits (the highest mountains of each of the seven continents).
Q: Why is stem cell research important?
I do think that stem cells will help people with blindness. I don’t know whether it will be a 100% treatment. Scientists may have to do something else along the way to perfect stem cell treatments whether it’s gene therapy or changing the number of cells or types of cells they inject into the eye. I really do have a huge amount of faith in stem cells. If they can regenerate other parts of the body, I think the eye will be no different.
To read more about Kristin Macdonald and her quest for a Second Vision, please visit her website.