Dr. Deborah Wygal, retiring genetics professor, gains perspective through vision loss

When Dr. Deborah Wygal, Professor of Genetics in the St. Kate’s 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 Sorsby’s Fundus Dystrophy (SFD). This late-onset disease, which is characterized by gradual vision loss, has profoundly shaped her teaching career as a geneticist.

Wygal began teaching at St. Kate’s (formerly the College of St. Catherine) in the fall of 1983 and will be named Professor Emerita during Saturday’s 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.

Wygal’s knowledge of genetic disease took a personal turn when her mother began experiencing vision loss at age 62. Wygal’s 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 viewer’s 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 Wygal’s 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 in-depth 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, it’s 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, but…I have a lot of peripheral vision, and people often don’t know that I’m 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 text-to-speech programs and contains helpful accessibility features.

“I want to volunteer and help people learn how to use the accessibility features and technology that’s out there. It’s 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 co-authoring 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 do—and Vision Loss Resources has had a lot to do with this—makes me determined to not give up. I’ve come to realize after 63 years of living that there are far worse things in life than partial vision loss.”

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