Scientifically speaking, eyes are not the windows to the soul; they’re the windows to the brain. When you gaze into your lover’s peepers, what you’re actually seeing is the retina, an extension of brain tissue that lines the back of the eyes like wallpaper. This paper-thin strip of cells is what makes the miracle of sight possible. At this very moment, your retina is performing a kind of sensory alchemy, taking in rays of light and seamlessly transforming them into the language of the brain. And voila: vision.
What happens when this key conversion doesn’t take place? Lisa Kulik found out the answer in 1981, when she went in for a routine eye exam. Kulik had been having a little trouble seeing at night—nothing she was too concerned about. Then her eye doctor found dark spots on her retina.
Kulik had retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that affects 1 in every 4,000 Americans, according to the National Eye Institute. In retinitis pigmentosa, almost all of the eye’s circuitry remains intact—all but the crucial, light-absorbing cells of the retina. These slowly begin dying off, like stars winking out into the night. Without them, visual signals never make it to the brain.
Over the next 15 years, Kulik’s vision gradually deteriorated. She had to give up her job as a veterinarian’s assistant, forfeit her driver’s license, and finally, retire completely. Yet even after her world went fully dark, Kulik, now 54, remained hopeful. “When they diagnosed me, they told me there was no cure for it,” she says now. “That didn’t stop me. I knew someday, something was going to come along.”