man playing guitar with granddaughter

Dedicated to helping others see

May 28, 2019 | UCI Health
actor tom sullivan speaks at uci health event
Actor Tom Sullivan has been blind nearly since birth.

Tom Sullivan has been an actor, singer, a scriptwriter, composer and television correspondent. He had a recurring role on the TV show “Highway to Heaven,” sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl and traveled the world speaking to doctors about the need to run more patient-friendly practices.

Sullivan has written more than a dozen books, is a triathlete who also golfs, skis and skydives. And at age 72, he likes running on the beach with his dog.

His guide dog, that is. Sullivan has been blind nearly from birth, a result of retinal damage from too much oxygen in the incubator when he was a premature infant. As extraordinary as his life is, Sullivan wishes he could see those waves along the beach, a rainbow, a mountain, the faces of his wife and children and so much more of the world.

Making a difference

Helping others see by supporting medical research on sight-robbing illnesses has become a passion of Sullivan’s as he works to raise money for the UCI Health Gavin Herbert Eye Institute (GHEI).

Sullivan came to know GHEI’s namesake, eye industry leader Gavin Herbert, and admire his work during a 15-year stint working for Allergan, the company Herbert founded, to promote more patient-centered medical care.

Sullivan also understood early on the role research has played in preventing blindness among premature babies.

“At the time I was born, blindness like this was an epidemic,” he said. “It doesn’t happen anymore. That could only occur because of research.”

Taking personal responsibility

Sullivan talked about this, as well as the importance of vision and his strong beliefs about the importance of supporting research at a recent meeting of the 20/20 Society, which is made up of people whose vision has been helped by GHEI doctors.

He told them that he considers the word ‘pride’ an acronym for “personal responsibility for individual daily effort.”

“I said they had to develop a sense of pride and purpose, through the 20/20 group, and be passionate about the preservation of vision.”

Research strides

Sullivan, who will be speaking June 3 at the eye institute’s as part of GHEI’s community lecture series, is thrilled by stories of GHEI patients whose vision has been stabilized despite a diagnosis of keratoconus and about patients for whom the progression of macular degeneration has been slowed.

These days, he’s particularly excited about the work of GHEI researcher Dr. Henry Klassen, who helped develop progenitor stem cells in an effort to restore the vision of people with retinitis pigmentosa. A friend of Sullivan’s who was largely blind participated in an early-stage trial of the treatment.

“She called me about two months ago, crying on the phone,” Sullivan said. “She said, ‘Tom, I was in my bathroom this morning and I saw my mascara.’

“Can you imagine? She was able to see her mascara.”

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