Losing sight won’t stop Larbert schoolgirl

Jill Hendry
Jill Hendry

A brave schoolgirl who was recently told she had an incurable eye condition has vowed to help others.

Jill Hendry was given the devastating news just six months ago that her sight was deteriorating rapidly, leaving her with little vision.

The pretty teenager’s world was turned upside down as she struggled to cope with the diagnosis.

But along with her family, pupils and staff at Larbert High School where Jill is in sixth year, have rallied round to provide her with valuable support as she bids to lead a normal life.

As well as needing help to get around the large school building, she is also using new technology to do her classwork.

However, three weeks ago she undertook a daunting skydive to raise funds for the charity which aims to find a treatment or cure for her condition.

Jill said: “I’ve always wanted to do a skydive and it seemed like a good way to raise money. If they do find a cure, I would hate to think that I hadn’t done anything to help.”

To date, over £4500 has been raised for RP Fighting Blindness, the charity for sufferers of retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a degenerative condition that leads to loss of vision and blindness.

As well as the skydive, for her 17th birthday in August her parents, Elizabeth and George, both 53, and sister Rebecca (19), organised a fundraising party at their Carron home.

Just 12 months ago, Jill was like any other senior pupil at the Larbert secondary. She had started wearing glasses then contact lenses at the start of fourth year after struggling to see the blackboard.

But after making several trips back and forward to the optician as her sight failed to improve, she was eventually referred to Gartnavel Hospital in Glasgow.

Following extensive tests on March 30 this year came the shock diagnosis that she had a form of RP known as rod-cone dystrophy which affects both her central and peripheral vision.

Describing her condition, Jill said: “It’s like when you wake up and you rub your eyes to get rid of the sleep so you can see clearly. I can rub them but don’t see clearly.

“Sometimes I can see shapes and colours but other times it’s dark.”

The quiet, unassuming youngster found herself put into the spotlight as both her family and the school tried to find ways of making things easier.

The dreadful news of her condition came less than a month before she was due to sit exams and, although she did stoically attempt them, wasn’t surprised that she failed to attain pass marks.

Elaine Disbury, the school’s assisted support for learning co-ordinator, said: “Jill was an emotional wreck who had to cope with the radical aspects of her diagnosis and went from being an independent pupil to someone who had to work with a reader of her exam paper and a scribe to put her answers down. That’s a whole new skill in itself and under the circumstances, she did remarkably well.

“We had to apply to the Scottish Qualification Authority for enlarged papers but still the font wasn’t big enough for Jill to see and special arrangements had to be put in place for her.”

However, Jill is determined to have another attempt at Highers and next May hopes to sit English and religious education with the hope of going on to college, then eventually university.

Falkirk Council has purchased an iPad2 for her to use, while Larbert High is providing one for the two learning support assistants, Jade Anderson and Linsey Fletcher, who work with her.

The LED display makes it possible for Jill to do work in the class and at home then e-mail her efforts to teachers.

Mrs Disbury said: “This has been her lifeline.”

The school has also linked up with Windsor Park School and Forth Valley Sensory Centre, as both Jill and those working with her attempt to quickly learn a new set of skills.

Jill admits that although the diagnosis was earth-shattering at the time, she’s relieved to finally know what has affected her vision.

She added: “I’d be trying hard to write things down in class but was going over the top of work I’d already done and I never wanted to do the scribing when we were involved in group work.

“At first, I felt really alone, particularly when I was told there was no cure, and thought people didn’t understand. However, I’m in touch through Facebook with a 17 and 19-year-old in England who both have RP and it helps to be able to talk to them and share experiences.”

But like any teenager, she wants to spend time with her peer group and, as she cannot go about independently, has been relying on the support of a close-knit group of schoolfriends.

Since news of her skydive, where she jumped in tandem with an instructor from 10,000 feet, the whole school has been made aware of Jill’s rare condition.

She said: “I was always worried that people would think I was ignoring them in the corridor because I couldn’t see who it was. Now I just say hello to everyone.”

Mum Elizabeth, an admin worker at Forth Valley Royal Hospital, said the family was proud of how she was coping.

She said: “Jill manages well at home and goes out walking the dog with me. She also takes part in Talking Tandem, a monthly bike riding group for those with visual impairment.”

Jill added: “The worst time can be during the night when I can’t get to sleep and I notice the shadows moving. That can be tough, but slowly, I’m getting more used to it.”