Category: Community Engagement

Doing More in Alabama

Using Helen Keller’s example to save eyes and educate the next generation through her life story.

Before she headed off to teach preschool, Angelia Bailey settled on her front porch to sip some coffee and slowly enjoy the early morning air and her daily refuge. In just a few seconds, the calm was gone, replaced by fear and confusion.

“I laid my head back, and suddenly it was like someone had thrown a paint brush at me,” Bailey said. “There were red specks everywhere.”

A diabetic, Bailey knew something was amiss with her eyesight. In less than an hour, she was in downtown Birmingham, Ala., at UAB Callahan Eye Hospital, under the care of Dr. Robert Morris. One of the nation’s foremost retina specialists, Morris quickly diagnosed a hemorrhage and scheduled laser treatment. It proved to be the beginning of a long recovery for Bailey, who also suffered from detached retinas.

Keller Johnson-Thompson
Keller Johnson-Thompson

“Dr. Morris has this wonderful personality,” Bailey said. “I remember I told him to be honest, and I asked him if I was going to lose my sight. He said, ‘If you do your part, and I do mine, we’ll be fine.’”

Morris is president of the Helen Keller Foundation, which is focused on saving sight, speech and hearing through clinical research and education. He has helped spark a revolution in treatments to save vision.

“We landed on the moon before we reached the back of the human eye, which was probably the last cavity of the body accessed by surgery,” Morris said. “What we are doing now is a continuation of Helen Keller’s legacy. She left us in 1968, just as biomedical research was getting started. But we are doing this research now, in her name, and it’s pretty striking.”

Morris first established a retina practice 35 years ago, one that has expanded to big and small cities across Alabama. Under his leadership, the Helen Keller Foundation’s research is cutting edge. For example, Helen Keller Foundation researchers first reported revolutionary surgery to repair the diseased macula, the human center of vision, and the procedure is now in use worldwide.

The foundation is named after Helen Keller, who was born on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, a small town in northwest Alabama. Her story is one known all over the world. She contracted fever at 19 months, leaving her deaf and blind. With the help of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, she learned to read and write, graduated Cum Laude from Radcliffe College and drew international acclaim for overcoming blindness and deafness.

In Tuscumbia, Keller Johnson-Thompson watches school children stream through the 19th century house and admire the landscaped surroundings of Ivy Green, Helen’s birthplace. A great-grandniece of Helen Keller, Johnson-Thompson serves as the vice president of Education for the Keller Foundation.

She speaks throughout the United States and the world about the Helen Keller Foundation’s mission. Closer to home, she reaches impressionable students through a successful outreach program.

“We use our education program to go into schools and teach students through Aunt Helen’s life, that you can overcome anything,” Johnson-Thompson said. “We use her story to tell her journey from a life of silence and darkness to a life of sound and sight. We show students she not only participated, but also made a difference in the world.”

The program goes further, teaching character education with a sharp focus on anti-bullying, especially through social media.

“In today’s schools, you find many children who are different — children who are put aside from their groups, maybe because they have a disability,” Johnson-Thompson explained. “These are kids who view themselves as outcasts until they realize what Helen Keller overcame. And those who bully are able to understand the human side of what Helen Keller endured.”

The Helen Keller Foundation does this with the sponsorship of Regions.

“I feel like supporting the Helen Keller Foundation gives students the opportunity to understand what it’s like to walk in the shoes of an individual with a disability and to provide them with respect,” said Kathy Lovell, Regions ADA manager. “I think it demonstrates Regions’ commitment towards the Americans with Disabilities Act. First of all, it’s doing what is right. And it’s taking it a step further and doing more for the community and the children.”

Two hours south of Ivy Green in Birmingham, the UAB Callahan Eye Hospital’s ophthalmologists focus on diseases of the eye — especially the retina — that meant blindness decades ago.

Dr. Morris and Angela Bailey
Dr. Morris and Angela Bailey

“Macular degeneration, detached retina, glaucoma and cataracts weren’t big problems 75 years ago because not enough people lived long enough to develop those conditions,” Dr. Morris said. “Now people live into their 80s and 90s. Working with the UAB Callahan Eye Hospital, the Helen Keller Foundation develops cures through research that are needed to treat these conditions.”

Like Angelia Bailey, Brenda Brown once realized something was very wrong in sudden fashion.
“One night, after working in my yard, I was taking the trash out,” said the retired librarian. “When I turned around, I couldn’t see a thing. I had no pain, but it was so, so scary.”

Brown, too, suffered an eye hemorrhage — this one in her left eye. Doctors knew she also was suffering from macular degeneration, which once meant permanent blindness. Instead, her sight has been restored, and she continues to receive maintenance injections since undergoing the initial procedure two years ago.

As a diabetic, Angelia Bailey once worried most about losing her eyesight. Instead, she believes she has discovered a miracle few know about.

“So many people aren’t aware of what we have right here, in this hospital,” Bailey said. “It’s wonderful, it has helped me. And I hope the research procedure that helped me can now help someone else.”

For Morris, his mission is to pick up where Helen Keller left off a half-century ago.

“She imagined what research might one day be able to do,” Morris said. “Now, in her name, we’re able to do the research she imagined. We teach Helen Keller’s legacy and all the lessons that come from that, starting with elementary school children. I’m very proud of it all. And what Regions Financial is doing with their support is taking us by the hand and helping us give back to the public.”

The Helen Keller Foundation is one of the more than 8,000 organizations Regions supports.