In focus: Anchorage 6th grader sees clearly for the first time thanks to new tech, community support
Imagine the whole world around you is a blur. That was reality for an Anchorage sixth grader who is now seeing clearly.
Rennick Heatwole, now 12, was born with an underdeveloped optic nerve. It’s a condition glasses and contacts can’t fix. He can’t see anything clearly unless it’s inches from his face, but that doesn’t stop him from playing football and soccer.
“I really just see the blob coming down and stick my hands out,” Rennick said, explaining how he catches a football. He has a different technique for soccer. “I look at the people who are playing and where there’s big clumps of them, I know that’s where the ball is and if I see a smaller, brighter colored blob, I know that’s the ball.”
It works on the field, but in the classroom, it’s not that easy to figure out what’s going on.
“Rennick and his friends always just naturally moved to the floor so he could see more clearly,” said his teacher, Marcea Tjaden, describing how he would move around the room so he could see what she was teaching.
New technology has allowed Rennick to stay in his seat with the other students. It’s called eSight. The glasses have a camera and two small LCD screens. Rennick can use a remote to zoom in and focus, allowing him to see the board from anywhere in the room. He’s been using them in the classroom for almost two months.
“I’ve just seen him be more of a kid instead of being more of a concerned student, looking for where he can go sit,” Tjaden said.
Wednesday, Rennick stood in front of his class and gave a presentation, reading text projected on the wall 10 feet away. It would have been impossible before eSight, according to Rennick’s dad, Mike Heatwole, who said the tool is one of many they’ve tried since Rennick was born.
“The diagnosis when we first got it was pretty devastating because we didn’t know, is he even going to see us?” Heatwole said.
He found eSight through social media. A quick trip to Seattle to try it out showed how much the technology could change their lives.
“We go in, he puts it on. First thing he does is zoom in on my face and say, ‘hey dad, I can see you really clear,’” Heatwole said. “We didn’t buy it right then. Didn’t have the money just lying around.”
eSight is new technology, and expensive: $15,000. The family turned to GoFundMe, hoping to cover a third of the cost.
“Put that out there and I kid you not, within 30 seconds had our first donation and then we just watched as more and more people donated,” Heatwole said.
They were overwhelmed by the donations, raising all $15,000 in just 24 hours. Six weeks later, eSight arrived and Rennick hasn’t looked back.
“I could basically see what my friends were seeing,” he said. “When they saw something, I could see it as well.”
“Its just been kind of a natural thing,” Tjaden said. “We took a few minutes and explained what it was and the kids were super cool with it.”
Heatwole acknowledges there will always be some things Rennick can’t see.
“When he talks to us about it, we redirect a little bit and draw out just his amazing characteristics. He’s got a heart that’s pretty unbelievable,” he said, choking up.
Rennick is excited about the future. There’s one thing he really wants to try with eSight.
“Watch like a sports game, a soccer game, a football game, from the stands with a bunch of people around me rather than just listening to the crowd or looking at the Jumbotron,” he said.
Heatwole said he hopes Rennick’s story can bring more awareness to eSight. Rennick is the first in Alaska to try the new technology, which can help 54 different kinds of vision issues.
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