Editor's Note: For the 13th consecutive year, the Tampa Bay Times presents Holiday Hopes, a series profiling people in need and giving readers a chance to help. The Times will update readers about granted wishes on Dec. 28.
By Monique Welch
Times Staff Writer
BRANDON- LaRhonda Travick always struggled to achieve passing grades while growing up in New York.
It wasn't because she couldn't understand the work or didn't apply herself.
She simply couldn't see.
As Christmas nears, Travick holds on to the dream of some day possessing full sight and elevating her life to new levels. But she needs help to overcome years of struggle.
During her childhood, peers bullied and teased her causing her to sometimes skip classes and hide in the staircases. She remembers teachers ignoring her, telling her she needed glasses, that she would get held back another year and eventually become too old for school.
At home, she would squint often, straining her eyes, and viewed the television sideways. Her mom would tell her to look straight, but she couldn't. They visited multiple eye doctors, but no one could determine the source of the problem.
Some simply instructed her to sit further away from the TV, and other suggested specialists who offered glasses with the uncertainty of its success.
Feeling hopeless she dropped out of school only to endure more trouble securing a job.
“People see me as a burden and because I physically look fine, they don't understand, so it's hard to explain,” Travick said.
“You start to feel like you're kind of worthless because you don't know what's wrong with you, you can't do anything to support yourself and no one is giving you any type of answers.
“It became a normal thing for me. As it became my world, I tried to ignore it until I was reminded that I couldn't see and I couldn't do anything.”
Travick, 33, realized it wasn't “normal” when she started to suffer injuries from running into things, tripping, falling and twice landing in the emergency room due to first and second degree burns. The trouble only continued until one day, she found herself at the right place, at the right time on two separate occasions.
She happened to visit her mom at her eye doctor appointment a few years ago, and after telling the optometrist, Dr. Jay Klein, her struggles, he immediately noticed it was a problem deeper than glasses or contacts.
Legally blind with keratoconus, which is a rare, progressive eye disease where the normally round cornea thins, preventing it from maintaining its round shape, and bulges outward in a cone shape.
Not many doctors treat keratoconus or are aware of the disease. Travick explained that Klein was only able to recognize it immediately because he had recently attended a conference on keratoconus.
She did her research on the condition and treatment, and learned she needed high-quality eye contacts to see.
Ultimately, she discovered, her condition would require surgery to avoid permanent blindness.
She also discovered that there are only two specialists that handle the procedure, one in Miami and another in California, and that the cost is very expensive. Insurance does not cover any of it and surgery costs thousands of dollars.
It took her one year to save $800 just to pay for an appointment and one contact. Although that one contact allows her to see better, it's low-quality and she can only wear it for a couple hours before it starts to irritate her eyes.
Travick teared up recalling the mixed emotions she experienced when she learned her diagnosis. On one hand, it brought some relief to finally find answers, but no longer wanting to live with partial vision, she wonders how she can afford the needed treatments.
"Seeing the world how everyone else sees it for the first time, it was crazy," she said. "It was good that I found out because it was like wow there's a name to this, this is awesome! But once I found out it was like my fight had just begun."
THE PREVIOUS HOPE: Her challenging childhood inspires legal aspirations
Amid her ongoing struggles, Travick realized she wanted to finish what she started. She joined ECHO of Brandon in September and actively studies to obtain her GED.
“She comes and she works,” said her GED instructor, Carolyn Seibert. “She's always happy and academically, she's very capable and intelligent. I couldn't imagine not having my vision and for her to even think about attempting to get her GED and coming in working the way she has. I have a lot of respect for her.”
Seibert, who taught special education for 43 years, found it particularly odd and shocking that educators did not recognize there was a problem and that she needed special attention.
For that reason, she made it her priority to help Travick by connecting her with the Florida Division of Blind Services and working with GED Test administrators to request accommodations on her test. The accommodations include a colored screen, extra time, and enlarged print.
Travick credits Klein in Brooksville for aiding her in the discovery process, and her instructor and the people at ECHO of Brandon for renewing her hope in herself. Now, through Holiday Hopes, Travick's wish is to gain the funding for her surgery and quality eye contacts, and secondly bring awareness to keratoconus.
“I felt like for a long time, I was stuck in limbo,” she said. “I gave up so much because of this disease, but they [ECHO] gave me hope that I can do this.”
LaRhonda Travick, a 33 year-old ECHO of Brandon client, is determined to succeed. She aspires to have a career in the medical field, but it starts with improving her vision. Her holiday hope is to have her surgery in Miami and obtain quality contacts for both of her eyes after years of being legally blind. If you can answer LaRhonda Travick's wish, contact ECHO of Brandon, 507 N. Parsons Ave. Brandon, Fl 33510 at (813) 685-0935 ext. 8007 or email Victor Fugate at [email protected]
Contact Monique Welch at [email protected] or Follow Mo_UNIQUE_.