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Mind over matter: My partially-sighted climb of the Matterhorn

May 11, 2015
David Reynolds on the Matterhorn

This month, in the latest announcements from the Big Lottery Fund’s People and Places programme, a total of £348,272 will be awarded to the Macular Disease Society to develop a project to provide support for people with macular-related conditions. The grant will help introduce volunteer-led services, such as support groups, to reduce isolation and improve independence for people with macular diseases.

One such individual is David Reynolds, a researcher at Cardiff University who was diagnosed with Stargadts macular dystrophy in 2010 in his early twenties, wanting to raise awareness of macular conditions he became the first person to make a partially-sighted climb up the Matterhorn, one of the tallest mountains on the border of Switzerland and Italy.

Speaking of the condition, David says, “It’s an invisible disability and people don’t know that people who have this condition actually have it unless they’re specifically told, or if they have a white stick.”

“It affects the central part of your vision. If you think of your eye as a camera, normally most people may have a problem with the lens, i.e. short or long-sightedness, but macular dystrophy affects the actual sensor. Although the light coming through the lens is in focus, it’s just not being picked up by the camera or in this case my eyes, so the central part of the picture is missing.”

Living with a macular condition isn’t easy. It affects David every day, and though he has no major problems walking from A to B, other activities are more difficult.

“The problems start when I try to see details, like recognising people’s faces or reading. For example, if I go to a pub to meet people then I can’t recognise anyone in the pub, I have to get my friends to stand up and wave wildly at me to grab my attention, I wouldn’t be able to physically see their faces. Directly looking at people I can tell whether people have facial hair or hair on their head, but I can’t see their eyes, nose and mouth unless it’s in peripheral vision.”

“I don’t drive at all. I wasn’t driving at the time of being diagnosed, but I had a regular eye test when I was younger and was told that I shouldn’t drive again, and that was when I got a referral to the hospital.”

“It is a very challenging thing at times to deal with, from speaking with other people about my own situation; it’s very difficult for people to relate what you’re going through, especially when people see you able to do some things normally.”

David taking a break on the Matterhorn

The problems didn’t stop there, not only would his condition affect his social and everyday life, but it would also make an impact on his career.

“When I was diagnosed my first thought was “Is this going to stop my career?”, my thought was that work, hobbies, and everything that I do is so reliant on my vision. My work requires a lot of visual analysis on scientific photographs to develop data sets, and I thought that if I couldn’t see photos properly, that could compromise my ability to get good data and ultimately compromise my entire career. It’s a continuous battle.”

“A big problem with macular dystrophy is that doctors can tell you that you have it, but not how it’s going to progress. So there was that fear when I was diagnosed during my PhD, “Will I be able to finish it? Will I be able to do the work that I’m trained for? Is there any point in carrying on with it?””

Fortunately David was able to complete his PhD and earn a place within a specialist research team within Cardiff University. It was at this point that he began to think big.

“I had the idea to climb the Matterhorn in 2012. I began to notice changes in my eyesight, and it wasn’t the easiest thing to deal with at the time. I wanted to do something that I could use as a life-marker, and say that I’ve got this problem and it’s causing issues, but I can still go out and do things that people that don’t have an eyesight condition would find difficult to do.”

“I’m fortunate to be in a privileged position with my job but there are so many other people who aren’t in as fortunate position as I am. Part of the reason was to say to younger or less-fortunate people that have similar conditions was that I can do this, and I hoped that I could inspire other people to do the same, to push themselves to do things that they might not think they could do, and also to raise money for charity and raise awareness around these conditions”.

Nearing the summit of the Matterhorn“Before climbing the mountain I knew that it was going to cause problems, I’d been climbing for 10 years, and I knew from previous climbing trips that being able to see foot placements on mountain faces and cliff edges was going to be difficult. I knew that I needed to get up the mountain as quickly as possible so that I had more time to get back down. Going up was actually easier than going down. There was the psychological difficulty of doing it in the first place, but also much more difficult I couldn’t properly see where to put my feet. I went with my brother and a friend to train at Mont Blanc but when we went up the Matterhorn we had to hire two guides as it’s a more difficult climb.”

Speaking of the news of the Big Lottery Fund’s award through its People and Places programme, David says, “Having a support network through this project would be of massive benefit to a huge number of people in Wales especially as it’s quite a common problem in older people. It’s great to hear that the Macular Disease Society is being awarded funding.”

9344696680_f03e99fc8f_h“When I was in Bangor, it’s a very rural area, and being able to find people in a similar situation was very difficult so it can be quite isolating. As a young person I have the benefit of being able to go outside and find people in similar situations to me, but older people may not have the capacity to do so, and I think that this funding will really help to reduce isolation.”

And finally, will David continue his adventures across the Alps?

“I’ve very recently arranged to go up Mont Blanc again in August this year, and I’m extremely excited to be able to still continue doing this and hope to inspire more people”.

For more information on the People and Places programme please click here.

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