Kevin Riordan: 13-year-old struggles with the onset of blindness

Student Deanna Greco, who is going blind, speaks at Mass at Christ the King Church in Haddonfield. "We gather in love to celebrate our journey," she said.
Student Deanna Greco, who is going blind, speaks at Mass at Christ the King Church in Haddonfield. "We gather in love to celebrate our journey," she said. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 21, 2011

Deanna Greco is 13 and going blind.

She stands, poised and smiling, at the front of Christ the King Church in Haddonfield, a portrait of grace.

"We gather in love to celebrate our journey," Deanna tells her classmates, offering the inspirational message she memorized for the end-of-school Mass.

"Let us be thankful."

The soon-to-be eighth grader from Cherry Hill was diagnosed four years ago with a genetic disorder that will inexorably erode her sight.

"I can see you," Deanna says, "but I can't see eyes."

She has 20/400 vision, well beyond the efficacy of corrective lenses. There's no treatment, much less a cure, and if Deanna fears anything, it's the prospect of waking up to find there's no more light.

Her parents, Domenick and Phyllis, are hopeful a yet-to-be-developed gene therapy will someday restore their only child's vision. Like Catherine O'Brien, Deanna's language-arts teacher at Christ the King Regional School, they believe their daughter is capable of pretty much anything.

Deanna, whose nickname is "D," believes that, too. A sports nut, she may try competitive swimming this summer. She also has fallen in love with acting.

"I love theater. I love that you can change your personality and be somebody else, and almost walk in their shoes," says Deanna, who's in rehearsal for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

It's her second Moorestown Theater Company production; she made her debut in February in Once Upon a Mattress.

"I was Princess No. 12," she laughs. "I felt so special!"

Fiercely bright, gifted with wit and blessed with a gregarious personality, Deanna recently, at O'Brien's suggestion, began to pen verse.

"Her first poem blew me away," her teacher says.

To write and do homework, Deanna touch-types on a conventional computer keyboard. But she reads printed material, including books, on a screen that displays a magnified image via closed-circuit video.

The device resembles an oversize desktop computer, and must be pushed from class to class on a cart. The technology is wonderful, but cumbersome, too.

"I wish I could sit in bed reading a book," Deanna says. "Sometimes I get, not mad, but upset. Other times, I know I'm losing my sight for a reason. I don't know that reason yet, but I know that one day I will."

Her parents, both 48 and software professionals, say Deanna has adjusted remarkably well to her situation.

"Better than I have," Phyllis says.

"To watch her vision continue to degrade is heartbreaking," says Deanna's father.

Domenick and his wife are grateful that the community at Christ the King has "embraced" Deanna, who is in most ways a typical teenager. She's crazy about Charlie, her Australian Shepherd-Husky mix. She pronounces her classmates "the best." She loves Glee and adores Lady Gaga, both for her music and her embrace of those who are different.

Not that Deanna wants to be seen as so very different from everyone else. The public trappings of blindness, such as Braille or a cane, are not for her.

"One of my major goals is for people to be happy with the world, and who they are," Deanna says. "I want to help people through writing."

For that, Deanna credits O'Brien. "Because of her," she says, "I've discovered I can write."

That first poem, the one that so impressed her beloved teacher, is called  "Symphony of Sleep. "

Lines such as "the beautiful radiant sun is steadily vanishing" and a reference to her eyes "slowly closing" startle me, given the poet's fear of waking up in darkness.

As the poem concludes, Deanna awakens to "a fantastic new day."

Or as the poet herself says, "I think when someone smiles, there's a domino effect.

"You never know what's going to happen next. Just live to the fullest. Just love your life."


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845, kriordan@phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq.

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