Earning a Degree While Losing Vision: Meet Bridget
While the rest of her high school senior class was preparing for prom and graduation, Bridget was in and out of doctors’ offices trying to figure out what was happening to her eyes as they became more bloodshot and sensitive to sunlight.
“It looked like every room was filled with smoke from a fire,” she said. “But my eyesight didn’t seem like that big of a problem by comparison since we had just lost my grandma, which was a big blow to my family. I figured doctors could fix my eyes.”
After months of blood tests, eye exams and even a spinal tap, Bridget was diagnosed with a rare nervous system condition called Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada disease, VKH for short. VKH attacks the nervous system – in Bridget’s case, her eyes. Now at age 31, she still meets many eye doctors who have never heard of the condition.
“I had a buildup of really bad inflammation in both of my retinas,” Bridget said. “I had the steroid, prednisone, in every form – eye drops, an oral medication and injections in my eyes. It was an aggressive treatment plan to control the inflammation.”
She dealt with cataracts and a damaged lens, which made her studies at American River College extra challenging because she could no longer read or see the board. In 2015, she left school, started receiving disability benefits and began working part-time at a bingo hall.
“I just kind of got stuck,” Bridget said. “I was scared to go back to school because I knew it wasn’t going to be the same and I was going to have to do things differently. I was scared about how I would even read a chapter in a book. That stalled me.”
Four years later, Bridget decided to dive back in – she would work and go to school at American River College. She talked to a school counselor and was set up with their disability program.
“The disability program at American River College was awesome,” Bridget said. “They had so much stuff for blind people that I didn’t even know I needed. It was so personal too. I saw the same counselor every time, and they knew me by name.”
In 2020, Bridget was taken off prednisone because it was affecting her liver. Two months after, her right retina tore. Three surgeries and three face-down recoveries later, she was told there was nothing they could do. She was now blind in her right eye.
“So many people told me to take an incomplete in my classes and take a break,” Bridget said. “But I said no, I’m finishing.”
Fortunately, Bridget had already discovered Society for the Blind. She had been taking a human services class and was tasked with calling an agency to interview them about their mission.
“I called Society for the Blind and said I was doing this project and needed to interview someone, and by the way, I also need to be one of your clients,” Bridget said.
Our staff helped Bridget get connected to Department of Rehabilitation and begin technology and living skills classes virtually.
“It was pretty awesome,” Bridget said. “I knew some stuff about computers and some shortcuts on the keyboard, but man, when you take this class there’s so many other shortcuts and software that are so convenient and helpful. They help me preserve my energy and not strain my one good eye.”
She graduated from ARC and transferred to Sacramento State. While taking classes at Society for the Blind, she also joined the Social Work Club at school and became treasurer. This spring, she will graduate summa cum laude with her bachelor’s degree in social work.
“I have a very big interest in psychology and behavior and why people do the things they do,” Bridget said. “I didn’t know how passionate I was going to be about it until I started taking more and more classes.”
At one point, someone told her she should not try to learn blindness skills and go to college at the same time.
“When people doubt me, it makes me want to prove them wrong,” Bridget said. “That has happened with a lot of things in my life. You think I can’t do it? Watch me.”
She says her journey through vision loss has been especially hard since losing vision in her right eye.
“Without Society for the Blind, I don’t know what I would be doing right now,” Bridget said. “It’s been hard going from being completely independent to being dependent on others and now trying to be independent again. But the skills you learn here teach you how to problem-solve your way out. It’s been exciting to share this journey with them.”