By Sophia Boccard
The day before Fourth of July, 2012, the second diagnosis came in. “It’s true, you have Usher syndrome,” announced the retinal specialist. Baffled and unwilling to accept the corroboration of the first retinal specialist’s initial diagnosis, I immediately responded with, “I’d like another opinion—is there anyone you can recommend?” In between both appointments, I had learned that Usher syndrome is the most common genetic cause of combined deafness and blindness.
The hearing loss diagnosis was not a new discovery. It had been detected when I was 4; my parents were told I lost my hearing as a reaction to an antibiotic given to me during an emergency surgery. Since then, having moderate to severe bilateral hearing loss meant wearing hearing aids, attending speech therapy classes, and walking around with an assistive FM listening system in school.
Growing up with a hearing loss gave me a new perspective. I had to learn to defend myself against bullies who would occasionally yank my hearing aids and throw them in the trash. And yet, here I was refusing to accept this “other” condition and learning that I had a combined hearing and vision loss diagnosis. After 26 years of thinking otherwise, it was certainly a rude awakening to learn that the hearing loss was not caused by the antibiotic.
Just a few short weeks before, I had been sitting in my optometrist’s office for a routine eye exam to refill my prescription for contact lenses. The optometrist noticed some inconsistencies during my examinations and asked me to stay for more thorough exams. A standard 20-minute visit turned into a two-hour ordeal. After reviewing the results she somberly referred me to the retinal eye specialist who gave me the initial diagnosis.
This retinal eye specialist—who was the first person to utter, “You have Usher syndrome” to me—had the worst bedside manner. I refused to just take his word for it. Immediately after I left his office I cried—a lot—but then regained my composure and made a few calls to see a second retinal eye specialist doctor for a second opinion.
And so on that day in July, even after the second retinal specialist reiterated the first specialist’s diagnosis, I insisted on seeing a third specialist who would prove them both wrong.
I went to the National Eye Institute (NEI), part of the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Maryland, for the third opinion. It was there at the NEI when everything came to a screeching halt and the final diagnosis was confirmed with a genetic test.
The test showed I was born with the mutated gene USH2A, a double recessive genetic disorder that requires both parents to have the exact same copy of the gene. Usher syndrome has three types—types 1, 2, and 3—each with many subtypes such as Usher 2A, Usher 3A, Usher 1F, etc. Combined there are approximately 400,000 people worldwide who have been diagnosed with Usher syndrome. But even with 400,000 people around the world with Usher, there still isn’t enough information easily accessible for individuals who receive this diagnosis.
That day at the NEI launched the next phase of my life. In the biography of my life, the following four years, 2012 to 2016, could be titled “My Wasted Years.” This is when I became a recluse, felt sorry for myself, and cried. Every. Single. Day. I had no way of expressing my sadness or even articulating my feelings, as I didn’t even know what it was I was feeling and how to cope with it.
Those were the years I felt as if I went blind overnight (and let me be clear, I did not go blind overnight—nor will I go blind overnight). I felt like there was this black cloud following me everywhere, hovering over my head and bringing constant rain, making me feel like a drowned rat.
Depression became my reality and my identity. I told a few people about the diagnosis but couldn’t elaborate on the condition since I felt like my world was ending. My desire to live was negligible. How could I imagine life with no sight? What would the quality of my life be like? What would I do without my independence?
These were all questions that ran through my head as the life I imagined living slowly started disappearing from my mind into total darkness. For four long years I asked myself repeatedly, What is the point? What do I have to look forward to?
Then it hit me. Literally. I was walking through Times Square during rush hour, a scenario that can overwhelm most people, when I slammed into someone who screamed into my face, “Watch where you’re going, a**hole!” It was in that instant that an internal shift took over and I shouted back, “Get out of MY way, a**hole!”
It was then I accepted I needed to stop looking at myself as a victim of a mutated gene and to start owning it.
I took a step back and recognized that all this time I had erroneously pitied myself. I felt sorry for my own future and what I was going to lose, and I forgot what it meant to just live life. In preparing for a future with vision loss, I was preparing for an apocalypse that would never come—unless I let it. I needed to stop judging myself and learn to respect myself all over again.
Thus 2016 marked the year of learning to be in control of my own reality, a brand new chapter in this biography of my life. I reached out to the NEI to connect me with someone with Usher syndrome who was willing to exchange emails and stories. Soon after, the NEI introduced me to another patient with USH2A who, after initially being pen (well, email) pals, we became “Ushties” (Usher + besties). Later that year I went to an Usher Syndrome Conference, held by the Usher Syndrome Coalition, in Seattle, and continued meeting many incredible, inspirational people who today are still some of my closest friends.
With these newfound connections I began advocating for both hearing loss and vision impairment communities. Through a friend, I was introduced to Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) and joined their Young Professionals Board for two years before being invited to sit on HHF’s Board of Directors. I also currently sit on the board of the Usher Syndrome Society and am involved with Young Professionals Groups at both the Foundation Fighting Blindness and the Greater New York Chapter of the ALS Association, fighting the progressive neurodegenerative condition known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
My fiancé and I have also decided to learn American Sign Language as a tool to communicate with new friends from the Usher community. Fundraising and awareness events have started to fill up my calendar. I look at each event as an opportunity to educate those who are unfamiliar with the importance of hearing and vision health and what it means to lose your hearing or your vision, either in part or completely.
For me, it’s the lack of awareness about how the diagnosis of either hearing or vision loss can have an effect on the individual’s own mental health as well as that of their loved ones. There is not enough support for the recently diagnosed. The public isn’t familiar with how to accommodate someone with hearing or vision loss, and since both conditions are not entirely transparent—it’s difficult for people to recognize that they are communicating with an individual with hearing or vision loss —it makes it that much harder to help.
I’m most proud to have the opportunity to teach willing learners that being deaf or blind is not something to pity but rather something to respect. I strive to demonstrate to others that even with our limitations we can still do everything we want, even if we need a little extra help getting there.
Not too long ago someone said to my fiancé, “Sophia is so lucky to have you. You are an incredible person for staying with her even through her diagnosis.” Wait a second, what? My first thought was that my fiancé is the lucky one! To be fair, neither one of us is any more “lucky” than the other. We both equally deserve each other—and despite comments like these, mostly well-intended (or not), no one will succeed at making me feel less of a person.
While we can each feel insignificant about our own lives when there are so many success stories of extraordinary people pulling off impossible accomplishments despite their limitations, let’s remember that we are each the star of our own story. We are the masterpieces of our own reality.
My story doesn't have a neat ending or a twist, reassuring the reader with a fairy tale conclusion. I’m just here to remind you, my new friend, that I’m not broken. I’m not half of a person; I’m not someone to “fix.” Usher syndrome is a part of who I am, but it is not my identity. I am a human being, who like any and everyone else, is whole and perfect just as I am.
If you have a health condition, don’t let it consume you. Own it. You are the badass who can survive against all odds. People are lucky to have you in their lives. Remind yourself to feel appreciated, get out there, and please, embrace your newfound celebrity status!
HHF board member Sophia Boccard works in digital marketing and lives in New York City. She wrote about an Usher Syndrome Society event she helped organize. This article original appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Hearing Health magazine. For references, see hhf.org/spring2018-references.