Eye Sight : Dark Dining Experience to Appreciate Visually Impaired

Ron Seely

Somewhere in the dark on the table in front of me was a plate. It had food on it. I had to get the food from the plate to my mouth -- in the dark. And I mean dark. Black, inky, dizzying dark.

Eating seems such a simple thing. But at this unique dinner, more than 200 people discovered in a sometimes messy fashion that for those who cannot see, a task such as eating, taken woefully for granted by those of us with healthy eyes, is just one of countless challenges that must be confronted and overcome every day.

It is impossible, stabbing at invisible food and wondering if hands are permissible, to not be transported for just a few minutes into the life of the blind or the near-blind. It's impossible not to be touched.

And that's the idea. This unique dinner, called Dining in the Dark, is a fundraiser sponsored by the Foundation Fighting Blindness. People paid for the experience, and that money will go to pay for research aimed at prevention, treatment and cures for diseases that cause degeneration of the retina, the remarkable film of cells at the back of the eye that collects and processes light and gifts us with sight. Such diseases include macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa and Usher syndrome.

Such dinners have been held around the country, said David Walsh, a Madison lawyer who is a board member of the foundation as well as a co-chairman of the dinner. He has a special interest in the effort because he has two grown sons who have Usher's syndrome, a disease that takes away both sight and hearing. Walsh, also a member of the UW System Board of Regents, hopes the dinner will give some at least a glimpse into that world.

"It is," Walsh said of the dinner, "a sensory experience."

Sensory, indeed. Members of the waitstaff, all blind or nearly blind, served us our meals and guided us through the experience. They sought our hands in the dark, helped us grip our plates and guide them to the table. There had been no mention of what was on the menu. But it smelled like steak. Soon, most had given up on silverware. It seemed odd at such a formal affair to be tearing into a piece of meat with my hands but, after all, it was steak. Next to the steak, apparently, asparagus. Or maybe carrots. And next to that, yes, mashed potatoes.

I was fortunate to dine with the Walsh family and son John, who deals daily with this darkness, had the best advice of the evening.

"Keep your face over your plate," he said.

Around me I heard silverware dropping, glasses being tipped over, and awareness growing.

"How do they do this?" someone asked.

It is no coincidence that the dinner was held in Madison. UW-Madison is home to research that has revolutionized the field through the science of stem cells. In fact, one of two honorees at the dinner was David Gamm, director of the UW-Madison McPherson Eye Research Institute and a leading stem cell researcher. Gamm was a recipient of one of the foundation's Visionary Awards. Also honored was men's basketball coach Bo Ryan, a longtime supporter of sight-saving research because the daughter of his agent is affected by a rare retinal disorder.

Gamm, whose research has been funded by the foundation, has harnessed the power of stem cells, blank-slate cells that can be coaxed to grow into any type of cell in the body, for use in studying and treating diseases of the retina. He has, for example, taken the skin cells from a person with a genetic retinal illness and reprogrammed them to an embryonic-like state. But he has moved even beyond that feat by searching for a way to correct -- at least in a cell sample in the lab -- the genetic defect causing the disease. Next up will be finding a way to develop healthy retinal cells that can be transplanted back into the person's retina to help treat damage.

Stephen Rose, chief research officer for the Foundation Fighting Blindness, praised not only Gamm's work but all of the sight research being conducted by more than 100 researchers across the UW-Madison campus.

"The bottom line," Rose said, "is that the University of Wisconsin is on the cutting edge. They are right out there."

Gamm, speaking with a certainty borne of seeing the magic of stem cells growing into a retina, believes that such research at UW-Madison and elsewhere will lead to something remarkable.

"I absolutely believe we have the ability to restore sight," Gamm said.

That was good news for everyone at Wednesday's dinner, after temporarily experiencing the challenges of living in darkness. When the lights came on, there were sighs of relief and exclamations about how difficult and eye-opening the experience had been. I discreetly tried to lick the mashed potatoes off my fingers.

(c)2012 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)

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