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Utah women facing blindness find strength in running, friendship

By Ashley Kewish | Posted - Nov. 19, 2014 at 2:46 p.m.


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BOUNTIFUL — A routine eye exam turned into a life-changing diagnosis for Alanna Whetsel.

She was told she will eventually become legally blind.

She was devastated, but through her friendship with someone who understood what she was going through, she is able to do things she never dreamed of.

About a year and half ago, Whetsel made a quick trip to the eye doctor when she thought she needed new reading glasses.

“They told me, 'There's no cure for you,'” Whetsel recalled. “'There’s not treatment for you. You likely, at some point, will be legally blind.'"

She was diagnosed with Stargardt disease. It’s a rare, inherited form of macular degeneration, according to the Mayo Clinic website. The degeneration results in blurred central vision or a blind spot in or near the center of the visual field. People with this disease typically retain their peripheral vision.

So far, Whetsel’s vision isn't bad, except for a small blind spot in her left eye. But the mother of four is feeling the emotional side effects that come with such a heavy diagnosis.

“I went home and tried to memorize my kids’ faces and cried a lot,” she said.


I went home and tried to memorize my kids' faces and cried a lot.

–Alanna Whetsel


That is something Becky Andrews knows all about. “From the time I was little, my vision has been closing in, so I have a little peep hole in one eye,” Andrews said. She has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease.

“Being a young mom, all those concerns and fears she was experiencing I could connect to,” Andrews said.

In her house, you'll find the comforts of home. You'll find words of encouragement, support and faithful friends — furry or not — plus, sayings like: “Life is not how many breaths you take, but how many moments take your breath away,” “Do what you love,” and “Dwell on possibility.”

Whetsel realized she needed those words of support and encouragement more than ever.

“She understood my fears and was just there as a friend, and I really appreciated that,” Whetsel said.

This connection isn't just emotional. These two, now joined at the hip, began running together. They run side by side with a tether between them. The activity turned into much more than a trip around the block.

The two took part in the New York City Marathon on Nov. 2.

“We just kept going, and we kept telling each other, 'We can do this. We can do this,'” Whetsel said.

“To me it represented so much. It was a real big dream,” Andrews added with a big smile on her face.

What is...
...Stargardt disease?
  • The most common form of juvenile macular degeneration
  • Diagnosed by yellow-white spots that appear in and around the macula
  • Symptoms include difficulty reading and gray or black spots in the central vision

“We saw the finish line and just started to cry, and it was just such a remarkable, incredible experience to experience that together,” Whetsel said.

Though these images may soon become dark for Whetsel, she sees one thing with perfect clarity.

“Sometimes the hardest things in our lives lead us to the greatest things we'll ever experience in our lives,” she said.

And the dream isn't over. When the two friends crossed the finish line in 4 hours 49 minutes, they realized they qualified for the Boston Marathon with 11 minutes to spare.

They are now busy getting ready for that next adventure, which will happen on April 20.

“Becky always says she doesn’t like what brought us together, but she’s so happy it did,” Whetsel said. “And I think that’s a really good way of summing it up. It was a hard thing that brought us together, but we have done amazing things together and built this amazing, great friendship.”

Contributing: Viviane Vo-Duc

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Ashley Kewish

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