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Constance Alexander: Genetic eye disorder leads biologist to alternative ways to see the world

When he was a farm boy growing up in rural Iowa, John Pollpeter was like most kids. He played Little League baseball and golf and was a mid-halfback in football. And living close to the Mississippi River provided adventures in the great outdoors. He was fascinated by animals, mammals especially, and that turned into a lifelong passion.

Around the time he was supposed to get his driver’s license, John was advised to get his eyes checked. Dr. Edwin M. Stone at the University of Iowa diagnosed him with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a genetic disorder characterized by breakdown and loss of cells in the retina.

John had suspected problems with his sight, but he did not realize the extent until Dr. Stone asked, “Can you see the stars?”

He thought it was normal only to see the moon, and occasionally a planet like Venus. He couldn’t see that the night sky was confetti’d with stars.

Dealing with a degenerative disorder made high school tough. Driving was out of the question, and his limitations made it difficult to participate in some typical teenage activities. He began to doubt his dreams of going to Africa and studying lions, but the landscape changed when he went to Iowa State University.

“I was no longer bound by needing to drive,” he explained. “I loved the freedom.”

As a major in Fisheries and Wildlife Biology, he excelled in studies based on lectures but foundered when it came to lab work. John likens his stubbornness to ask for help as a “caveman” trait. Once he overcame his obstinance, he made other adjustments that allowed him to stay in his field.

When he took a class in nature interpretation, a great teacher opened his eyes to a new world.

John’s early work in his field included teaching at camp, where he taught repelling and rock climbing. When he got an apprenticeship at Land Between The Lakes, he was given the opportunity to live at Empire Farm, overseeing the care and handling of the red wolves.

John’s responsibility was a thrill, not a burden. “I worked with wildlife in a capacity where I had control. I focused on sound, touch, and feel,” he recalled.

In his twenties and thirties, while he still had some sight, he managed to travel the world, including two trips to Africa, and other sojourns to exotic destinations like the Amazon and Machu Picchu.

Today, the same Dr. Stone who diagnosed John is working on a gene therapy procedure that could cure John’s blindness. The prospect is exciting but not guaranteed. It offers hope.

“If I get my eyesight back,” John says, “you’re not going to see me for a while.”

He imagines visiting every continent to experience the various cultures and observe wildlife up close. “I want to see a tiger, sharks, koala and kangaroos,” he adds.

Even with his disability, John Pollpeter reveals that he can distinguish blurry outlines in good light, and his cane helps him negotiate safe paths at home, at work, and around town. He credits Murray’s taxi services for helping him get from place to place and praises the local movie theater, the Cheri, for providing audio description equipment.

A fan of the Americans with Disabilities Act, John experiences ADA in action at LBL and the Nature Station, where he works and manages others. The Nature Station ramp makes life easier and safer, not only for John but for visitors on crutches, anyone pushing a baby carriage, and the elderly.

John Pollpeter recently visited a Humanities class at Murray State University’s Commonwealth Honors Academy to answer students’ questions about blindness. The Interdisciplinary Humanities and Fine Arts class was reading “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. The novel’s main character is blind, and the class wondered if the depiction of blindness was accurate.

John debunked the myth that blind people have better hearing than the rest of us, but he explained how he pays special attention to his surroundings using his remaining senses. When he touches an animal, skull, for instance, the tactile experience is essential.

“The gaps in vision are filled in by touch. It’s like going from two dimensions to three,” he said.

For more information about LBL’s accessible facilities, including the Nature Station, log on to www.landbetweenthelakes.us.

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Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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