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When Dr Deborah Wygal Professor of Genetics in the St Kates Biology Department began her graduate studies in genetics at Brandeis University she was unaware that her scientific passions would eventually converge with her personal health However at the age of 46 Wygal discovered that she had a genetic eye disease that would later be identified as Sorsbys Fundus Dystrophy SFD This lateonset disease which is characterized by gradual vision loss has profoundly shaped her teaching career as a geneticist

Wygal began teaching at St Kates formerly the College of St Catherine in the fall of 1983 and will be named Professor Emerita during Saturdays commencement ceremony which will honor her retirement Since realizing in graduate school that she did not like being isolated in a laboratory Wygal has enjoyed every minute of her 32 years as a biology instructor

This definitely has been my dream job When I stepped into that classroom for the first time I knew I had made the right choice I loved learning about new things and synthesizing them in a way that I could present to students Wygal said

Wygals maternal grandmother had also experienced vision loss in her early sixties After realizing disease was heritable Wygal only 32 began going to the eye doctor once a year and using an Amsler Grid to evaluate her eyesight

The grid which looks like graph paper with a dot in the center is used by covering one eye and staring at the dot If the lines appear wavy there is reason to be concerned about the viewers retinas Wygal however did not need the grid to diagnose her vision loss which was confirmed by a retinal specialist when she was 46

One day in lab a student handed me a graph she had drawn and I looked at it and realized that the lines were wavy and immediately called my eye doctor Wygal said I knew for certain that I had vision loss and I was surprised that I was as young as I was

For five years after this initial diagnosis the effects of Wygals vision loss were minimal as she was still able to read text But when the day came that she could no longer grade exams that were written in pencil Wygal searched for a more indepth explanation of her vision loss She visited Dr Ed Stone at the University of Iowa who specializes in hereditary retinal diseases After drawing blood to perform a genetic test Stone was able put a name to the genetic disease it was SFD

It was sort of the ultimate irony to be teaching about genetics and hereditary diseases and to have one Wygal said I realized I could use it as a teaching tool because as a biologist its fascinating and I want to learn everything I can about it But I also have to live the reality of the disease slowly progressing over time

When Wygal began having trouble reading the enlarged font on her computer screen she sought out emotional support resources for people with vision loss To her surprise they were not easy to uncover A breakthrough occurred when by chance Wygal met a community service representative from Vision Loss Resources of Minneapolis Ellen Morrow

Morrow introduced Wygal to various vision loss support groups and resources like classes in using her white cane Wygal quickly became involved with Vision Loss Resources and served as the Chair of the Board of Directors for two years

Using my white cane has involved a lot of training Wygal said I resisted the cane for a long time butI have a lot of peripheral vision and people often dont know that Im visually impaired The white cane has really helped me in that it says This person is visually impaired

Vision Loss Resources also instructs on how to use the Metro Transit bus and light rail system of which Wygal is a frequent rider Next on her list however is working with a guide dog

Once I get certified I am going to apply for a guide dog which is my lemonade for being handed this lemon I love dogs and this will certainly be a gift if I get one Wygal said

In her retirement Wygal would like to provide others experiencing vision loss with the gift of technological knowledge Her particular form of expertise is with the iPad which has allowed her to utilize texttospeech programs and contains helpful accessibility features

I want to volunteer and help people learn how to use the accessibility features and technology thats out there Its such a loss when you realize you cannot do things the way you always have done them so I want to help people with that and empower them through technology Wygal said

After retiring Wygal also looks forward to traveling spending time with her family and finishing a book that she is coauthoring with Dr Lynne Gildensoph of the Biology Department She vows to continue learning about the biology of SFD because writing a book that teaches genetics in the context of living with a hereditary disease might be on her horizon

I think that my vision loss has allowed me to see that I have not been made a victim of this eye disease Wygal said The more I learn how to doand Vision Loss Resources has had a lot to do with thismakes me determined to not give up Ive come to realize after 63 years of living that there are far worse things in life than partial vision loss.

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