Life is what you make it, says Áine Mae O’Mahony, who lost her sight at the age of 25 over a four-week period.
Unsurprisingly, it changed the trajectory of her life.
Despite the complications brought on by ill-health, O’Mahony used the period after her sight loss to flip her career on its head and become a spokesperson for the visually impaired in Ireland. We chat as O’Mahony is recovering from a kidney transplant and pancreas, a takeaway from the diabetes that she lived with from the age of eight.
“I’m not a diabetic, for the first time in almost 30 years,” she says with undisclosed glee. “The gratitude I have is overwhelming.”
The diabetes which had plagued her life from childhood caused diabetic retinopathy in O’Mahony’s 20s, damaging the blood vessels of the retina and ultimately causing sight loss. What started as a dark spot in one eye became almost complete blindness in a matter of days. Her new reality, says Áine, was stark.
“Everything just stops and you have to learn a whole new process for living.”
There is no quick fix when it comes to adapting to life as a visually impaired person.
“What might work for one person who is visually impaired or blind mightn’t work for the next person. You are trying to fit what kind of aids are out there into the lifestyle you are used to having. I didn’t go down the guide dog route, but I did embrace technology quite openly and, because of that, it’s changed my life.”
Finding digital aids and a way of moving forward provided a life-changing platform for O’Mahony, who used it as an opportunity to retrain in radio programming.
“The most ironic thing of my whole experience is that it took for me to lose my sight to get to pursue the career that I always wanted. Sometimes, in the most adverse times of life, you find happiness. It’s kind of strange, but once you reach the stage of acceptance you have the time and space to think about what you really want to do with yourself and, for me, that was working in radio.”
Following a two-year ECDL course, Áine went on to qualify in radio programming and went to work for Raidio Corca Baiscinn, a community radio station in Clare.
Today, she is the station manager, overseeing 14 staff and 90 volunteers. She says the rewards are exceptional.
“I work with a wonderful team. They are very good to me and I get to work in the community with people of all demographics, so my experiences are very diverse. When you’re working in community radio, you have to really believe in it in order for it to work, and that’s what makes it so enjoyable.”
Losing sight, like any crisis, is devastating, but with the right support, it doesn’t have to be a life sentence, says O’Mahony.
“The first thing you have to do in these situations is to overcome your own vulnerability. You have to go out into the community without knowing if people are saying hello to you or who is walking by,” she attests. “I’ll always be grateful to my cousin, to whom I was incredibly close. I remember telling him that I was afraid to go into town or to meet people I knew and he said two words to me: why not. I thought: ‘Yeah, why am I putting up these barriers?’” The station manager immediately began reaching out to find out what organisations existed in Ireland at the time of her sight loss, to learn as much as she could about her new lifestyle.
“The first place I started was with Fighting Blindness. I found their research into cures and projects around the country fascinating. The National Council Of The Blind was incredible in terms of logistical solutions. For example, they offer things that make life easier, like a talking watch or a weighing scales that will talk to you. I love cooking, so I was able to find things that would make it easy for me to get on with things that I always loved to do.”
The simplicity of regaining skills gave infinite independence to Áine, who has a thirst for knowledge and learning.
“The minute I was able to send an email was so liberating. I wasn’t computer savvy and all of a sudden the whole digital world opened up. There are so many organisations out there to help and it’s about finding the one that fits your needs and lifestyle. I think the day we stop learning is the day we stop. I visualise everything. My brain kind of works like Snapchat – I
visualise my life and map it out.”
When it comes to sight loss, it is important to acknowledge and accept a grieving period, says Áine.
“If I was asked to talk to somebody who had just lost their sight, I would wait to see how the person was feeling about it themselves. It’s essential not to come across as patronising; what works for me mightn’t work for the next person. I advocate visualisation and motivational speaking. Whether you have sight or not, we all want to feel good and have a good life. There are always going to be tricky times, but it’s about how you deal with them.”
Áine Mae has been through the wars, but remains firm in her belief we can find positivity in even the darkest times. She has experienced loss and ill-health in the last 12 months, but with her new kidney and pancreas, and a shiny engagement ring on her finger, there is nowhere for this inspirational character to go but up. She says her experiences have led her to believe that what you put out, you get back in spades, and no matter how helpless we may feel, there is always a choice to be made.
“In difficult times, you can find a serious amount of strength. You can look back and think: ‘If I got through that, then this is nothing.’ You have a choice, and I find it’s good to have your negative moments, but you choose how long to stay this way.”
- To mark World Sight Day, Fighting Blindness is hosting a three-day international conference, Retina 2017, supported by Novartis, with a patient engagement day for people with rare sight loss conditions taking place on Saturday, October 14, in the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Golden Lane, Dublin. Register your interest at www.retina.ie