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Blindness back to sight: An interview with Jim Hindman

Jim Hindman
Jim Hindman (Submitted photo)

Jim Hindman has faced a lot of challenges in his life, from growing up an orphan to launching hospitals; from coaching the Green Terror football team at then-Western Maryland College for four seasons beginning in 1976 to founding the Jiffy Lube International oil service franchise. But he said the biggest challenge began when he was diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration in 1992, at the age of 57.

Age-related macular degeneration is a progressive type of vision loss that eventually led to Hindman being declared legally blind. In 2012, Hindman's persistent search for a cure or therapy led to his being the first Johns Hopkins patient to undergo an innovative type of surgery that implants tiny telescopes in the eyes to help restore vision.

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Hindman has now written a book about his journey, "Was blind but now I see," with the proceeds from sales going to fund research into curing macular degeneration. He will be giving a talk about his experience, macular degeneration and his life at 7 p.m. on Tuesday at McDaniel College.

The Times recently spoke by phone with Hindman at his Westminster horse farm to learn more about his book, his battle and the challenges ahead.

Q. Your new book, "Was blind but now I see," tells the story of your diagnosis with and subsequent battle against age-related macular degeneration. When were you diagnosed and what were you thinking when you first learned this was happening to you?

A. Well, I was diagnosed [22] years ago. As with most patients, I had no immediate reaction because I didn't know anything about it. I sort of shut it out of my mind. It was only with progression that I realized what the impact was. It was that long ago and it has been a battle ever since.

Q. You've done a lot of things that many people would consider quite challenging, from growing up an orphan to coaching football to launching a multimillion-dollar car service franchise. How did this struggle with macular degeneration rank among those life challenges and were there any new life lessons you took away from that experience?

A. The macular degeneration has been the most devastating challenge that I have faced. It was devastating because I was ignorant of the process that was taking place. As much as I compliment the medical profession and certainly Wilmer Eye Institute [at Johns Hopkins ... ], where my mind was when they told me — I didn't get it. I didn't understand what was happening.

When I saw the way my vision was changing it really began to impact me. When I had to give up driving, that really was a bummer ... But when I drove the car and I went on a dark road without lights and I couldn't see where I was, I knew the day had come when I had to give up driving.

Q. Were there lessons or aspects of your character that you developed from your past challenges that prepared you to face the macular degeneration diagnosis?

A. The real lesson that all of us have to learn is never, never, never give up. So after I got over the depression and despair and decided that I had to really find a solution, that there had to be some place to go … Having been a winning football coach and a corporate executive, it isn't something I can give you a good comparison to. When I had it all, and then I had nothing, and I didn't know where to go to get to something.

But I did find a way, because by never, never, never giving up, I found people with the same problem who had begun to build equipment that was a short-term solution and I found people that were heavy into the research for what should be done next. So by reaching out to those people, I acquired knowledge, and knowledge is power. It gives you a direction to take.

Q. You were one of the first patients to try a new, surgical therapy for macular degeneration. Can you describe the procedure, how you learned about it and how successful it was for you?

A. My football coaching days paid off in that one of the fathers of one of the players wrote me about an article on what was going on at [The University of California, Davis], talking about the implantable miniature telescope ... I was the first surgical patient for the implantable, miniature telescope at Johns Hopkins ... My vision went from 20/400 to 20/40.

[The implantable miniature telescope] is the size of pea. The device itself is installed in your eye and they make an incision in your eye and attach it to your retina and then the material grows together. It's been two years and I have had no physical problems.

I dream of the day when the recovery will be so complete that I can hop in the car and head off to town. You have to have a dream to have a dream come true, and the dream that I have is that my vision will be recovered to that extent.

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Q. You've written a book about your experience, "Was blind but now I see." What made you decide to tell your story in this form?

A. There are so many people in this age group where macular degeneration begins to become a force. You get to be over 50, and if it is going to occur, macular degeneration will occur between 50 and 55. So that big group will be facing this as a health care risk going forward and that's devastating and that's why it's my goal to make more people aware. I have written this book so that there is an opportunity for people to see what I went through and to see what is out there in terms of opportunity for advancement.

Q. The proceeds from book sales will go to benefit research on macular degeneration. Are there particular areas of research you learned need more funding or is there a particular institution the sales will support?

A. There are three dynamics that I am trying to direct funds to. The first dynamic is to contribute to finding a cure for macular degeneration just as we did for polio ... There are 1,000 Food and Drug Administration approved research projects looking for answers and someone is going to come up with it, but it will take time and it will take money ... First to the Wilmer Eye Institute [at Johns Hopkins], and second to the Wills Eye Institute [in Philadelphia] where the stem cell research is going on and third to the Lions Club's [Low Vision Rehabilitation Network], which is the rehabilitation arm.

Q. You grew up in Sioux City. What initially brought you to Maryland and why?

A. I was director of medical administration at the Kennedy Space Center. I basically ran the health care facility that had been built. You can say a lot about the government in the negative, but the first building opened there was the health care facility. They took care of the people so we equipped it, opened it and operated it.

I had a friend in the consulting business who asked me to look at Baltimore County General Hospital. I finally agreed to go look at it and I and I happened to be in New York and gave him my opinion and the next thing I knew I got a call from Vice President Hubert Humphrey who said, "I understand you were in Baltimore and we'd like you to take a look at that hospital."

I became part of the rebuilding and remodeling of Baltimore General, now Northwest Hospital, so Hubert Humphrey brought me to Maryland.

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Q. What's your favorite part of living in Carroll County?

A. I love living in Carroll County ... At some point, my wife wanted to know when she was going to be first, so we bought this farm and began raising racehorses. We've just had a wonderful time in Carroll County. Clearly the romance that so many people see with what was originally Western Maryland College was something that I quickly became addicted to. I truly love the college and the good work that they do and through that I met a lot of business people.

We continue to participate in different activities in the county. I think that it would be hard to define any one thing that I do. I love to go fishing and I live near Liberty Lake and so we fish there, but my great fishing spot is the Chesapeake Bay. Last time I went fishing, a couple of weeks ago, we had 12 great big rockfish, I'm talking about 30 to 33 inches. Big fish, great time.

Q. What's next for you? You'll be giving a talk about your book at McDaniel College on Tuesday. Is there a book tour in the works?

A. I have made a two-year commitment to raise the money for the defeat of macular degeneration. I have begun to put together a team that is going to sell 250,000 books, with a little bit of help from my friends, and that will raise the money that will make an impact. It will create awareness of the disease, which is still a bit of a secret in America, and I hope it will lead to a better program of care for those patients that have macular degeneration. For me it will be my way of paying back and saying "thank you" to America for all the great physicians and support people that have done so much for so many, many people.

Reach Staff Writer Jon Kelvey at 410-857-3317 of jon.kelvey@carrollcountytimes.com.

If You Go

What: Author talk, "Was blind but now I see," with Jim Hindman

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 2

Where: Wahrhaftig Conference Room in Hoover Library, opposite Hill Hall at McDaniel College, 2 College Hill, Westminster

Cost: Free

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