Tuesday 25 October 2016

'I noticed the speck in my right eye in 2006 and within a year I was blind'

After going blind at just 25 from glaucoma brought on by diabetic retinopathy, Áine Mae O'Mahony, now 34, says she may have lost her sight, but she never gave up on her dreams. The cafe owner-turned radio station manager tells how she came out of the darkness

Ailin Quinlan

Published 02/11/2015 | 02:30

Áine Mae O’Mahony was forced to give up the cafe she ran in Co Clare after losing her sight, but is now following her dreams of working in radio. Photo: Natasha Barton
Áine Mae O’Mahony was forced to give up the cafe she ran in Co Clare after losing her sight, but is now following her dreams of working in radio. Photo: Natasha Barton

She was happy, successful, independent, and why wouldn't she be? Still in her mid-20s, Áine Mae O'Mahony owned a thriving business, and had her whole life ahead of her.

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One morning she noticed a tiny speck of darkness in her right eye.

Within a year she was blind.

Life as she knew it would never be the same. Áine suddenly started spending a lot of time in hospital.

She lost the beautiful little café business she had built up.

Her independence was gone; she struggled to come to terms with the new darkness that surrounded her.

But Áine Mae didn't give up.

She'd had some experience of illness - from the age of eight, the young businesswoman had had diabetes type one and had learned to manage the condition.

In the spring of 2006, when the then-24-year-old café owner from the Co Clare seaside resort of Lahinch, noticed a tiny dark blot on her vision, she never dreamed what it would lead to.

"It was a sort of dark spot in my vision, but when I looked in the mirror there was nothing to be seen. I went to the optician to get my eyes checked. He took a picture of the back of the eye and said blood vessels at the back of my eye had ruptured.

"He explained that the dot I was seeing was actually a speck of blood."

Áine Mae was told that she would require laser surgery to combat the growth of the blood vessels in the back of the eye. These blood vessels, it was explained to her, were increasing in size as a result of glaucoma - a side-effect of diabetes.

"I had diabetic retinopathy - the glaucoma was a result of diabetic retinopathy," she says, adding that she now believes the damage to her eyes had begun many years previously.

"Although my eyes had been tested on many occasions, there was no diabetic screening when I was younger."

Áine Mae had the recommended laser treatment but her eyesight didn't get better. She learned later, she recalls, that the natural pressure in her eyes had begun to increase significantly, and that eventually the optic nerve in the left eye had also been damaged.

The doctors could do nothing, and within 12 months of discovering that tiny speck in her right eye, the young businesswoman was completely blind.

"I noticed the speck in my right eye in 2006 and by the end of February 2007 - within a year - I had lost my sight due to diabetic retinopathy," she says.

"I had to close the business (a cafe she ran in Ennistymon) because of the high pressure in my eyes and the subsequent loss of vision. Once I'd lost my sight, I had to start again from scratch."

A lot of people would have given up there and then. Áine Mae, however, recalled an old dream to work in radio.

"I'd always wanted to do this," she recalls, "but somehow I got side-tracked and it was something that never crossed my path."

Okay, she decided, she'd go for it.

But first things first - if she was ever to work in radio, she needed to become computer literate.

"I took on a distance learning course with the National Learning Network for two years," she says, adding that once she was able to use a laptop and send emails through the use of high-tech talk-back technology, she went to college to study radio programming.

She started the course in 2009, and a year later, landed work experience on a community radio station in Co Clare, Radio Corca Baiscinn.

Once the work experience programme finished, O'Mahony, who now lives in Liscannor, began to work at the station as a volunteer.

"I learned the ropes of radio programming," she recalls.

She found she loved the work and had an affinity for it. By 2011 she was producing radio programmes. In 2014 she applied for the job of station manager - and got it.

"I was always ambitious," she recalls, "but as a result of the loss of my eyesight I had to find my way around problems many people never even have to think about.

"It was a mountain to climb, but I took it in small steps and learned along the way. I'm still learning," she says, adding that the presence of what she describes as "a very supportive team at work" and her passion for the job has helped make her old dream come true.

"It's very challenging but I love it. I simply didn't allow blindness to get in my way. You don't know by looking at me that I'm blind."

She has two personal assistants who work in designated shifts to help her achieve a more independent lifestyle.

"I have no sight whatsoever but I'm working full-time because I find ways to do things. I wouldn't be happy sitting at home.

"Everything that I have visualised in my life I have achieved. I am blind but I oversee a team of 14 staff and 90 volunteers."

* Áine Mae will be speaking at the Fighting Blindness Retina 2015 conference in Croke Park, Dublin on November 6 and 7. See retina.ie

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