Wolverhampton teenager: Let me see the world before blindness hits

Wolverhampton teenager Chelsey Cartwright suffers from a rare degenerative eye disease but has  has vowed to see as much as the world as she can before she goes blind.

Chelsey Cartwright, aged 17, centre, with 12-year-old sister Kaylie Cartwright and mother Vicqui Cartwright, 40
Chelsey Cartwright, aged 17, centre, with 12-year-old sister Kaylie Cartwright and mother Vicqui Cartwright, 40

As a child Chelsey was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a rare degenerative eye disease which severely impairs sight and often leads to blindness.

She has lived with the condition for as long as she can remember. Chelsey gets disorientated walking into a crowded room, her tunnel vision meaning she has to keep looking around to make sure she doesn’t bump into anything.

Reading books and doing school work poses its own set of problems. Everything has to be magnified or the words are just a scrambled blur.

She also struggles to adjust to changes in light, and can’t see at all in dusky conditions. One day in the future, she will lose her sight completely.

Sisters Chelsey, front, and Kaylie selling cakes at school
Sisters Chelsey, front, and Kaylie selling cakes at school

“When I was little I didn’t realise how serious it was,” said Chelsey, who lives in Parkfields with her parents and younger sister.

“It was only when I wasn’t allowed to go on school trips because of my disease I started to feel left out and secluded.

“I used to think it would be easier if I just stayed at home in my bedroom, but I realised there is no point in dwelling on it.

“I told myself I wouldn’t let it beat me.”

True to her word, the courageous 17-year-old has refused to let her illness dominate her life.

Chelsey is an A-Level student at Smestow School who, despite her sight problems, achieved 12 GCSEs – including five at grade A.

Earlier this year she embarked on a fundraising drive for Compton Hospice which has so far raised almost £1,000 – the target was £400.

Up to now it has involved a school bake sale and card trading competition, a five-mile canoe ride down the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal and most recently a parachute jump from 13,000 feet above the Shropshire countryside

Chelsey didn’t hide in the bedroom, she came out fighting.

Chelsey Cartwright at Tilstock Airfield ready for a parachute jump
Chelsey Cartwright at Tilstock Airfield ready for a parachute jump

“Mom took me for tests and the opticians kept telling me there was nothing wrong with my eyesight,” she said.

“But I was finding it hard to read and kept bumping into things when I walked around because I was being so careful not to trip over. We knew something was wrong from an early age.”

She was eventually referred to New Cross Hospital where, after a series of tests, doctors diagnosed her with Retinitis Pigmentosa.

“They told me I would go blind at some point, but because each case is different they didn’t know when it would happen,” she said.

Chelsey’s mom, Vicqui, 40, said the news was hard for the family to take at first.

“It was horrifying. The usual eye tests had not picked anything up. As a very small child she would drop a crayon on the floor and feel around for it rather than looking to see where it was.

“At first we thought she was being lazy, but it was clear something was wrong even though glasses seemed to have no effect. After the diagnosis we still didn’t know when she will lose her sight completely.

“So it is like a time bomb. We have had to adjust to the fact that she could be blind any day now.”

Gradually Chelsey started to adapt to her condition, aided by her family, teachers and fellow pupils, firstly at Castlecroft Primary and then at Smestow School – both of which are fitted out with special units for the visually impaired.

“It was hard for people around me as well when I was first diagnosed,” she said. “I need a lot of support but I don’t really like asking people for help."

Getting on with her life has involved seeing and doing as many things as possible while she can still see.

Chelsey took to the canals of the Black Country in March
Chelsey took to the canals of the Black Country in March

As well as her charity exploits, this has involved a string of foreign holidays in recent years, including trips to Turkey, Portugal, Spain and the Greek islands.

It is a trend she hopes to carry on into her working life.

After finishing her A-Levels, Chelsey plans to study Travel and Tourism at the City of Wolverhampton College with the aim of becoming a travel rep.

“My parents just want me to see as much of the world as possible before I go blind,” she said.

“I love going to places and seeing the sights, plus it ties in with what I hope to do as a career.

“It is always in the back of my mind that I might never see certain things again, so it is about having a mental picture for me to create memories from.

“I know I’m going blind, but until then I’m determined to get as much out of my life as possible while I can still see.”

Retinitis Pigmentosa - the facts:

  • Retinitis Pigmentosa is a rare hereditary condition affecting around 10,000 people in Britain.

    It gradually destroys the retina, the light-sensitive layer at the back of the eye.

    The condition causes permanent changes to vision which can differ between people.

    In the more common forms of Retinitis Pigmentosa, the first symptoms occur between childhood and the age of 30.

    People with the condition often suffer ‘night blindness’. This makes it difficult to see in poor light.

    While most people find it takes their eyes about 20 minutes to adapt to dim light, a person with the condition will find it will either take much longer or it won’t happen at all.

    A second common symptom is the loss of peripheral vision.

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More information about RP and the work underway to find a cure can be found at the RP Fighting Blindness website www.rpfightingblindness.org.uk