man playing guitar with granddaughter

A second chance at sight

December 05, 2019 | Tom Sullivan
uci health patient kristin macdonald
Kristin Macdonald lives with retinitis pigmentosa, but a clinical trial is giving her a second chance at sight.

Kristin Macdonald lives with retinitis pigmentosa, a disease of the retina that gradually robs a person of most of their vision.

“It got to a point where I could only see small amounts of light and shadows, not very helpful if you want to live independently,” says Macdonald, who was born in Canada, reared in New Jersey and played all types of sports, but enjoyed horseback riding most of all.

Macdonald also had a promising acting career, but as her vision began to dim at age 29, so did the lights of Broadway and Hollywood.

'You have to survive'

“You have to survive, so when the acting jobs weren’t happening I went to work for a major production company,” she says.

Today, Macdonald lives alone, manages to go to the gym every day, dress impeccably and is a terrific cook.

She also hosts a popular radio show, “Second Vision,” for the Audio Internet Reading Service of Los Angeles (AIRSLA).

“I’ve learned to adjust, but to go from the complete freedom of vision to have to depend on a white cane has really been tough,” she admits.

Acceptance and hope

“I’ve had to accept the fact that I am blind, but now for the first time I have real hope.”

The hope for Macdonald and a small group of carefully selected patients comes from a clinical trial started by Dr. Henry Klassen at the UCI Health Gavin Herbert Eye Institute (GHEI).

The treatment involves the injection of healthy stem cells into the retina of study participants with the goal of stimulating the eye function to become more normal.

Macdonald says she and other trial participants received varying numbers of cells in order to effectively measure the results.

“I was given a million cells, which sounds like a lot, but actually it was on the lower end of the numbers. I really didn’t know what to expect, and for a while nothing happened and I have to admit I started to become depressed.”

Gradual improvements

A change began so gradually, Macdonald says she almost didn’t notice it.

“One early evening, I started to see lights coming from adjoining apartments. For the first time in years, I could use light as a tool to navigate. I began to get really excited about what the stem cells must be doing.”

Macdonald says one of most difficult things she does as part of her daily regimen is apply her makeup. On another day, when she found herself in front of a mirror that had offered her no reflection, she wondered: “Is it just my wishful thinking or is something really happening?

“I could see my reflection as I applied brightly colored eye shadow. My hands started to shake and I was crying uncontrollably, not because I was sad, but because I was feeling a kind of happiness I can’t describe.”

A dream come true?

She found herself thinking, “If I was noticing this kind of improvement from a minimal number of stem cells, maybe the potential to see again and make my dreams become a reality was possible.”

Macdonald is still working with GHEI experts as the trial continues and she’s hopeful for the future.

“With the continuing support of the doctors at the eye institute, I am starting to believe that there’s a chance for second sight.”

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