Despite being diagnosed ‘profoundly deaf’ at birth and ‘clinically blind’ at the age of 48, Jennifer Pretorius (59) who lives in Fish Hoek, Cape Town, has always been determined to lead a full life.
At the age of 6, unable to attend mainstream school due to developmental issues, Jenny was sent to the Dominican Grimley School for the deaf in Cape Town, where she says the nuns cried when she couldn’t say her name.
Defying all odds, Jenny learned to speak without deaf sign language, and caught up to her classmates academically in just two years, with the help of speech therapy.
Although Jenny was thriving at school, another curveball came her way, when at the age of 10-years-old, her tennis teacher noticed she was having difficulty with her hand-eye coordination.
She was later taken to an optometrist, who noticed black spots in her retinas, but wasn’t able to give her a diagnosis.
Despite her worsening eyesight, Jenny never gave up on her love for sports as she got older. She played tennis, cricket, netball, badminton, hockey and could even ride her bicycle in those days.
“Nobody realised how bad my eye condition was. I just took on everything I wanted to do like all the other children did, and my parents encouraged me to take on new challenges.” Says Jenny
A devastating diagnosis
At the age of 18, shortly after completing matric with exemption, Jenny was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa an incurable genetic retinal disease, which causes tunnel vision and night blindness. Combined with her lack of hearing Jenny is said to suffer from Usher Syndrome.
In her young adult life, Jenny joined the Navy as an administration civilian, ran for Defence and Fish Hoek Athletic Club, participated in half marathons, and rode horses at the Glencairn Equestrian Centre.
Sadly, as Jenny’s eyesight deteriorated further, one by one she had to let go of her passions including photography, as she would often fall down, accidents became more frequent, or she would be knocked by cars while walking.
After nearly 33 years of service in the Navy, Jenny was medically boarded in 2013 when her peripheral vision got so bad that she was unable to perform her office duties.
Adjusting to a new world
After being told by doctors that she needed to prepare for a life of total blindness and deafness, new hope came in the form of a life-changing cochlear implant that Jenny had inserted in 2019.
The device partially restored Jenny’s hearing – a major feat, considering that for 57 years she lived life in total silence.
With the help of the implant, and Jenny’s faithful companion, her beloved guide dog, Kaine, by her side, Jenny gained a little more important independence and was able to better navigate her surroundings and overcome daily challenges.
“I was very excited to have a guide dog as my other half and companion. He was my eyes and ears. We were inseparable. He saved me numerous times when walking on the streets, especially when crossing the roads. With the sudden loss of my right-hand man last year, I felt incapacitated, lost, lonely, and vulnerable. He had a massive impact on my life giving me independence and security.” – says Jenny
Learning Braille will help Jenny stay connected
Without Kaine by her side, Jenny is afraid to walk alone, as it is difficult for her to distinguish between sounds. For the time being, Jenny’s life partner, Gerald has taken over the role of Jenny’s eyes and ears.
To make Jenny’s life a little easier, as her eyesight is currently less than 2%, and it would take about 3 years to get a fully trained guide dog to take Kaine’s place, her friend Debbie Holmes has launched a crowdfunding campaign on BackaBuddy to help Jenny learn braille.
“I met Jenny about 6 years ago in our local dog park. Kaine and my labbie Rambo, were quick friends and would spend hours playing together. While Jenny and I struggled to communicate at first, I soon learned that she could lip-read, and then we just clicked and she crept into my heart” – says Debbie
As Jenny is now no longer able to read print books and newspapers, a device called the Braille Mantis Q40, estimated to cost R56 000 (about $3,600) including shipping from overseas, is what Jenny desperately needs to stay in touch with her loved ones and the world around her.
Since the launch of the campaign almost R100 000 ($6555) has been raised towards Jenny’s fundraising target of R180 000 ($11 800) with kind contributions from 30 donors both locally and internationally.
With funds raised thus far, Debbie has purchased Jenny a 6dot Braille label maker, Dolphin magnifier, a Braille and screen reader PC program and a few other gadgets, to make Jenny’s life easier while she waits for her Braille Mantis Q40.
Any additional funds will be used for speech therapy sessions that Jenny is currently unable to afford.
“Jenny does not let her daily struggles and challenges define her, she has a beautiful soul and a kind, caring nature. I have never met someone who is so resilient and so passionate about life. No matter what she is going through, she always has a smile on her face and is grateful for each day. I hope the public will support me in helping Jen” – says Debbie.