by Lauren Hauptman
“When I was 18, I started noticing things didn’t look the same way they did when I was 17,” Thelen Dow says. It wasn’t until he was driving through the Rocky Mountains three years later with his mother, though, that he got his eyes checked. When he told her he really couldn’t read the road signs, his Mom took the wheel and drove him straight to a LensCrafters, where they were unable to get an accurate reading of his eyesight — “It was that bad,” he says.
And it wasn’t until he moved back home to Northern California and saw an ophthalmologist that Thelen was diagnosed with keratoconus. “I’d never heard the word keratoconus,” he says. “I said, ‘What is that? Is it cancer? Is my eyeball going to fall out?’ It’s a big, scary word coming from a doctor. It was surreal.”
“Once I got over the initial shock, I went on to the National Keratoconus Foundation (NKCF) website and I realized there are lots of people who have this. There are pictures on the site that show what it’s like for people to see with keratoconus. I realized, in the grand scheme of things, my vision isn’t nearly as bad as some of those images show, so I’m a lot better off than some people are.”
Dow, now 24 years old, working at a biotech company and attending Cañada College, is a self-described nerd. His vision has remained relatively stable with prescription glasses, as well as sunglasses to combat his hyper-photosensitivity. Though, recently, he says, “I have noticed it’s getting harder and harder to drive. Luckily, I live up in the mountains. I have more trouble driving on freeways at night, because of all the lights. When I look at a light at night, it shoots off in all different directions. It really scares me.”
While Dow has looked a bit into corneal cross-linking, he doesn’t let his keratoconus interfere with his life — at all. With his characteristic easygoing style, he says: “I figure I’ll cross the next bridge when I come to it. I’m not going to let this hold me back from doing anything. Honestly, I don’t spend much time thinking about it.”
Dow’s mom, on the other hand, spends a great deal of time thinking about keratoconus. “That’s her M.O.,” Dow says with a laugh. “She’s a scientist; she attacks a thing aggressively, does loads of research and tries to annihilate it.”
Part of Leslie Dow’s plan to “annihilate” keratoconus is a solo 1,000-mile hike of the Pacific Crest Trail she will begin in July to raise money and awareness for The Discovery Eye Foundation and NKCF.
Dow will be doing his part to support his mom’s hike, serving as her ground support, shipping supplies, testing food and managing the “horde of animals” at their home in the Santa Cruz Mountains while she’s gone.
“I really hope the hike can raise awareness,” he says. “People just assume your eyes are going to work when you wake up in the morning. But sometimes they don’t.”
Thelen Dow’s mom will be hiking 1,000 miles to raise awareness of keratoconus and money for keratoconus research. To support Leslie and to learn more about her project, click here. We’ll be posting her blog this summer so you can follow her journey along the Pacific Trail.
Read about Leslie Dow’s Hiking Goals
Lauren Hauptman is an editorial and creative services consultant based in San Francisco, CA.