Stephanie Masterson

Stephanie Masterson remembers November 29, 2005, as if it were yesterday. Just 13 years old and a few months into Grade 9 at the time, the young student from Timmins, Ontario, lost most of her vision in an accident during a floor hockey game in gym class, and her life changed forever.

Colour photo of Stephanie MastersonStephanie, now 15, says that at first she didn't think the accident was too serious. "I had a concussion and a bad headache," she recalls. "And I saw stars, like when you stand up too fast."

She spent a day or two resting up at home and then bounced back to resume her studies and her usual activities. The stars in her vision persisted, however, "and then it became foggy after a while," she says, which is when she and her family became concerned. She was taken to several doctors in Timmins for further examination, where it was discovered that the optic nerve in one eye had become infected - and the infection was spreading to the other eye.

Difficult News

Stephanie recalls that one of the first doctors she saw was "pretty blunt" with her, telling her she may never regain her vision. "I remember it being really hard to breathe," she says quietly. "My family took it pretty hard."

Wise beyond her years, Stephanie also acknowledges that being told of this possibility early on helped her to prepare for the permanent loss of her vision, which did happen eventually.

A whirlwind of doctors' appointments followed as her family sought treatment for, and answers about, Stephanie's prognosis. But behind the scene, life went on as usual. Her dad put up handrails in the house for added safety ("at first we didn't have any") and Stephanie continued to attend classes at her high school.

"But I kept having to leave for doctors' appointments," she says. "I got really sick of being poked and prodded by doctors. I got to the point where if I saw someone coming toward my eye..." She trails off with a grin and a mock growl.

"Nothing We Can Do"

Her doctors tried various treatments including steroids, but increasingly told her "there's nothing we can do."

Early in 2006 it was decided that she would move to Peterborough, Ontario, several hundred miles south of Timmins, to live with her grandmother and be closer to doctors and hospitals in Toronto, where her family had managed to secure some appointments with specialists. It was a perfect arrangement for Stephanie.

"My grandma is really cool," she laughs. "She doesn't make me wear knitwear!"

One of the doctors she saw in Toronto was Dr. Edsel Ing, a specialist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. He confirmed that Stephanie's vision loss would be permanent and connected her and her family with CNIB.

On With Living

Stephanie moved back to Timmins where she and her family (mom, dad, her older sister and a "lazy dog") simply got on with the business of daily living.

"My family is very open about my vision loss," she says, "and it's just a fact of life now. At first it was hard, but if something is not going to change, then you just have to get used to it," she says matter-of-factly.

Adjusting to life around the house was relatively easy because she already knew her way around. One advantage, she admits with a grin, is that her vision loss excuses her from some chores, such as vacuuming. But in other ways, she says her parents are harder on her. For example, her mom is especially concerned that Stephanie keeps her room clean and organized in case of a fire or other emergency, so that Stephanie can find her way out quickly and safely.

Attending school has been more of a challenge. Stephanie now uses a magnifier to read and uses large print books when they're available. She uses her new DAISY player to read audiobooks for pleasure, however, because her eyes sometimes get tired.

Learning by Listening

"It is really different to learn by listening instead of reading," she says. "That was one thing that was hard to adjust to. I still refuse to do any schoolwork orally. I find it so much harder. I know it sounds weird, but I am a visual learner even though I have low vision."

Her friends have been great about her vision loss, she says. "But sometimes they forget and do things like invite me to play Frisbee!" She says it's also been a challenge for her buddies to remember to tell her about obstacles. She laughs out loud as she recalls a time when she and a friend were walking across a muddy field in a downpour. "I fell into a deep hole full of mud. My friend turned around to see where I was and all she could see was my umbrella sticking up!"

She recalls another incident when she was learning to use her white cane. "I stuck the tip of the cane around a corner and a boy tripped over it and fell right on top of me. I was so embarrassed that I just got up and ran away!"

Laughter is the Best Medicine

Her keen sense of humour has been a large part of helping her adjust to the changes that have come with her vision loss. For instance, her plans to join the army and become a nurse have been deep-sixed: "After talking with my guidance counselor, I realized I would need good vision to do things like giving needles or drawing blood," Stephanie laughs.

Instead, she is now focusing on becoming a history teacher. "I have always had a fascination for history and for how past events influence the present," she says.

She recently put her budding stand-up comedy skills to good use, acting as an emcee at a cousin's wedding and earlier this year. She also recently logged an impressive 19 hours of volunteer service helping CNIB with their annual crocus sales in Timmins.

Her message? "People don't think bad things can happen to them, but it can happen to anyone." And with the right support, a bit of flexibility and a dose of good humour, life simply goes on in a whole new direction.

Help Us Make a Difference

From time to time, we reach out to Canadians for donations to ensure that CNIB is on hand for individuals who are searching for the services and support necessary to enjoy a good quality of life while living with vision loss. Please give generously