| Jul 17, 2008

Feature Article - July 17, 2008

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Feature Article - July 17, 2008 Jeff Ball’s Fields of visionBy Julie Druker

Jeff Ball

Sometimes in life we require a little jolt to make us aware of things that we may take for granted.

We find ourselves in need of a new way of looking at things, and if we are lucky, suddenly, we come across someone by chance, who feels like a real gift.

I came across Jeff Ball, a 38-year-old farmer from Sunbury in a store in Harrowsmith. Our conversation started up easily enough and became increasingly interesting as it continued.

Jeff Ball was born with an eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that affects the retina and it has left him almost totally blind in his right eye and with only 6/90 vision (10% vision) in his left eye - little enough vision that he is considered legally blind.

This degenerative eye disorder affects the optic nerve, which becomes constricted, preventing proper oxygen and blood flow to the retina. As a result, the retina starts failing and grows improperly, eventually stopping the transmission of images so that over time, a person’s vision becomes drastically reduced.

Jeff has seen his vision deteriorate steadily over the years. As a farmer, as a student and as an adult he has had to make adjustments and adapt to a world that has become less visible with each passing year.

Now, what could easily be a tale of woe and despair is actually the beginning of a story filled with humour, adventure, determination, success and hope.

Raised on a farm in Sunbury, Jeff’s condition has never prevented him from working on the farm. As 12-year-olds, Jeff and his brother (who suffers the same condition) worked on opposite sides of the dairy barn, milking their own cows and cleaning their own stalls, while managing to stay out of each other’s way.

Today, Jeff and his dad continue to work the farm together and have developed a system of working to maintain safety and efficiency.

Machines are parked and implements placed in the same place every single time. When cultivating, Jeff’s Dad will put out the auger on the combine to signal to Jeff to meet him at the end of a field.

Jeff also relies on his hearing to know where his dad is in the field. When he loses his dad’s location, Jeff will turn off the tractor, jump down out of the cab and listens closely until he locates him. Jeff carries a cell phone and if something is amiss he can easily contact his dad to correct the problem.

Over the years, Jeff has developed a keen knowledge and deep respect for the machines that he works with. He possesses healthy amounts of both confidence and caution. Jeff states unequivocally, “Every piece of machinery can kill a sighted person as fast as it can someone who is visually impaired. Most farming accidents are the result of stupidity, brought on by hastiness and impatience.”

The help of a few close friends have made farming a lot easier for Jeff and his dad, including farming friends Raymond Shannon and Andy Purvis.

In the last while, Jeff’s work on the farm has lessened as his vision continues to decline. He cultivated the fields up until 2004, when his ability to see the contrast between the cultivated and uncultivated lines of earth lessened. “I could still do it now”, he admits, “ but it is more efficient to hire someone who will overlap by only 1 foot instead of by 6 feet.” He still drives and picks up the loads of hay since he knows the farm and its features like the back of his hand.

On unfamiliar land, however, he obviously doesn’t fare as well. He laughs as he recalls the first time he tried to cultivate the rented farm down the road, “I never even made it around the field once and I drove into the swamp because I couldn’t see the difference between the dirt and the swamp.”

Jeff attended high school at La Salle Secondary School in Kingston but his sight worsened yearly, so that, by the end, he could no longer read books or see the writing on the blackboard.

In 1986, with only 3 credits needed to graduate, Jeff was determined “to find a school that was going to teach me something.” He decided to attend the W. Ross MacDonald School in Brantford, a school for the visually impaired - a very wise decision, as it turned out.

He attended for three years and graduated in June of 1990 with 54 credits and a wealth of practical hands on training under his belt. Unbeknownst to him, the school would lead to a very unexpected but welcome adventure. Jeff recalls, ”On my very first day there I met the gym teacher who invited me to the wrestling practice that day.” Jeff took to the sport and in three short months was competing nationally in “The Canadians”, a wrestling team and tournament for the visually impaired. Jeff won “The Canadians” that year in 1987 and every year consecutively after that until 1994.

In 1990 Jeff became a member of the Canadian Paralympics Wrestling Team, and competed internationally at the Paralympics held in Assen, Holland. He came away with the bronze medal. He participated again in the1994 games in Colorado Springs and brought home the silver medal.

One of Jeff’s favorite anecdotes from his Paralympics career occurred at the O’Hare airport in Chicago when the team of 10 wrestlers, “all pretty nearly totally blind”, their sighted coach and a guide were rushing to catch a plane they mistakenly thought they were in danger of missing. All were running flat out from one end of the gigantic airport to the other along the moving sidewalks with Jeff in the lead.

As Jeff remembers it, “ I was in front and we were all running on the moving floors because it was faster and when we got to the end of it, I didn’t see it and of course we ended up, 7 or 8 of us, in the this big pile of bodies and suitcases sprawled all over the airport floor.”

Later, unfortunately, Jeff’s wrestling career did abruptly come to an end in the winter of 1994 when he had a second, much more serious crash.

Out with a friend, both on 4-wheeler ATVs riding on the frozen winter lake, both broke through the ice. Luckily they survived the crash but it left Jeff with a badly injured shoulder and back and a punctured lung.

Jeff’s vision worsened substantially after the crash and he wonders now if the lung injury can be blamed since it would have decreased blood flow even more dramatically, resulting in more rapid deterioration of his retina.

Never one to give up and ever one to remain open to new possibilities, Jeff’s most recent foray has brought him back to Chicago and plunged him into the world of state of the art eye surgery. Recently, a good friend of Jeff’s made a important discovery on the internet that has opened up some exciting new possibilities: namely the chance of gaining back some of his lost vision.

Dr. Alan Chow, an eye specialist and surgeon based in Chicago has developed a micro-chip that is surgically implanted in the affected eye. The chip is solar powered through the eye and, in many cases, can read more messages than the damaged retina.

While the treatment is still in trials and in the very early experimental stages, the initial results are encouraging.

In certain cases, the surgery has brought back 10-40% of vision that was once lost. Some patients have seen vast improvements in their ability to see contrast, in the amount of field of vision they have and their colour perception.

To date, 42 patients have had the chip implanted. Out of those, 60% have seen significant improvements; 20% have seen some improvement and 10% have seen no improvement. The final 10% have worsened due to complications with the surgery, not as a result of the device itself.

In early June of this year Jeff traveled to Chicago and had a consultation with Dr. Alan Chow. His condition makes him a possible candidate for the treatment. Jeff now has to decide is he wants to take the chance of possibly gaining vision or in the worse case scenario, losing the amount of vision that he presently has.

Jeff knows that it will not be an easy decision to make. And while he is never one to back down from a challenge, he admits, “This will take a lot of thought and consideration. It‘s a big decision you know, How much will it give me? Will it give me enough vision to continue farming?”

Jeff adds thoughtfully, “I can sit here and say, ’You know, well, I’ll deal with it, I’ll deal with it’, but I think it would be pretty depressing to go through something and it goes the opposite way”.

Jeff’s decision comes at an important time. His father is getting close to retirement and will soon no longer be able to farm, leaving Jeff in the position of taking over the farm himself.

No doubt Jeff will meet these new challenges as he has met all of the challenges so far: head on, with common sense, humour, understanding, an open mind and a courageous heart.

Good luck Jeff. And thanks for the jolt. You have helped me to see.

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