Man Who Lost His Vision Now Helps Others

Thomas Tobin lost his sight to diabetic retinopathy. Now he has a new focus.

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on September 20, 2015
From the WebMD Archives

I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when I was 9 years old -- 42 years ago -- and back then we didn’t have many tools to manage the disease. It was basically "take your one shot of insulin per day and hope for the best." And that was pretty much how I managed diabetes.

I was a sophomore in college when home blood-glucose meters came out. And of course at age 18, I didn’t think very much about it, because you think you’re invincible. I was a varsity athlete in tip-top shape and being monitored by my doctor, but I wasn’t using the blood sugar meter. 

Just after soccer season in my junior year, I began to notice subtle changes in my vision. Things just weren’t as crisp and clear as they used to be.

I came back home, and that’s when my doctor found I had "proliferative diabetic retinopathy," which is a fancy way of saying I had a bunch of abnormal blood vessels that had grown all over the back of my eye that weren’t supposed to be there. They have a tendency to leak and hemorrhage.

Thus began a 6-month tour of driving back and forth to college and home where I’d have laser treatments, which initially did a pretty good job of slowing down the retinopathy.

I went to bed after typing my final paper of the semester, and I woke up the next day and couldn’t see out of my left eye. I packed up my car, drove back home, put the car in park, and turned off the ignition, and that was the last time I ever drove a car.

The next day I saw the retina specialist, who confirmed that the retina in my left eye had detached. It was basically like turning off the lights. My right retina was in pretty bad shape, too. When the retina in my right eye finally detached, I was totally blind. I had several more surgeries, but my vision never came back. I’ll never forget when my doctor said, "Tom, there’s nothing more medically I can do for you."

From my diagnosis to that point was 1 calendar year.

I had no idea what my future was going to be about. But I enrolled in a sight center where you learn new skills needed for daily life -- like cooking, cutting vegetables, doing laundry, getting around. I learned to read and write Braille. I was very motivated that nobody was going to take care of me.

When I was done with the rehab, I went back to college, the only blind student there. I finished my degree and returned as a volunteer to the sight center, and then was hired as a development officer. Now I’m a development consultant working for the blindness community. I feel blessed today. I live an incredibly fulfilling and independent life, giving back to society.

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Thomas Tobin, development consultant, Cleveland Heights, OH.

National Eye Institute. "Facts About Diabetic Eye Disease."

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