More than 11.5 million Americans suffer serious visual limitations, and of these, 2 million are either legally blind or cannot see well enough to read. At the present time, Florida is ranked 5th (105,000 patients) in legal blindness, 4th (600,000 patients) in visual impairment, and 9th (260,000 patients) for children of school age who have vision problems.
Dr. Peter Pavan, chairman of USF's department of ophthalmology, left, Dr. Jay Wolfson, a professor of public health at USF, and his son Alan Wolfson, a USF medical student, adjust to the darkness as they try on masks before dinner is served.
You knew your plate had been set before you only by sense of smell. It smelled like beef, something braised and hearty. On your right a voice asked what you do for a living. You turned and lobbed an answer in that direction.
Tuesday night was the Foundation Fighting Blindness's first Tampa Bay Dining in the Dark event at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort & Golf Club. More than 200 people, dressed fancy and sipping cocktails, took seats in the main ballroom and eventually donned something called a Mindfold face mask, impervious to light and lined with foam. The lights dimmed and as emcee Dick Crippen of the Tampa Bay Rays goaded the crowd, the group endeavored to enjoy "the first meal you will never see."
Other senses were heightened, texture became paramount. But more important, it gave all of the assembled a greater window into the world of the sightless. Many had come because their lives had already been touched by degenerative retinal diseases. Briana Pompilus, 24, was there as a volunteer with her mother Veronica Floyd, 44, who was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at age 22. Still driving now, eventually her vision will close up as if looking through two drinking straws.
Mary Lou Johnson Evans was there for a similar reason. Her 14-year-old son, Josh, suffers from the same disease.
One of the evening's speakers, April Lufriu, a former Mrs. Florida America pageant winner and president of the Tampa Bay area chapter of the foundation, spoke of her sister's retinal disease and, more haltingly, about her two children's recent diagnosis.
Degenerative retinal diseases affect more than 10 million Americans. As keynote speaker James Minow described it, the foundation's aim is to put an end to retinal disease by replacing defective cells in the retina, replacing defective genes and by developing new treatments to protect degenerating retinas. The obstacle? As is so often the case, it's money.
According to Kim Marlow, regional director of development for the foundation, the evening in St. Petersburg will raise $100,000 for the cause. The most successful Dining in the Dark event to date, in New York, raised $500,000 in a single evening.
The evening's honorees, doctors James Gill and Stephen Klasko, were feverishly optimistic about conceivable cures for blindness. For those assembled, a half hour in the dark was a humbling, and bumbling, reminder of the magnitude of the gift of sight.