READ TIME | 7 MINUTES
Alan Gunzburg: Overcoming Vision Disability as Lions Club Member
Alan Gunzburg, a first-generation American, was born in the Bronx, NY, in August of 1959. Alan’s parents, both Holocaust survivors, were born in Antwerp, Belgium, and met many years later in the United States.
Alan grew up in Forest Hills, NY, where he attended Forest Hills High School and graduated in 1977. After high school, he spent two years in Europe and Israel working, traveling and seeing the world. He eventually returned to New York, where he enrolled at the State University of New York at Buffalo to study history and anthropology.
His first job out of college was in sales at the DataEase company in Trumbull, Connecticut, where he sold database software to companies all over the United States. He moved from DataEase to a sales position for Quality Microsystems (QMS) and sold laser printers to computer dealers in the New York Tri-State region. Eventually, he was hired by his biggest customer, Xerox Corporation, which would turn out to be Alan’s last job.
In his mid-30s, Alan received a diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa. Retinitis pigmentosa is a hereditary disease that involves a breakdown and loss of cells in the retina—which is the light-sensitive tissue that lines the back of the eye.1 In the early stages of the disease, rods are more severely affected than cones. As the rods die, people experience night blindness and a progressive loss of the visual field, the area of space that is visible at a given instant without moving the eyes. Symptoms of retinitis pigmentosa are more often noticed between the ages of 10 and 40, but earlier and later onset forms of retinitis pigmentosa exist. Unfortunately, Alan can’t trace the disease to anyone in his family, as most were killed during the Holocaust.
Alan first started to notice symptoms when he was having trouble identifying people at a dimly lit bar in New York City. When it became incredibly difficult for Alan to see at night, he went to see an ophthalmologist and two different retinal specialists, all who confirmed Alan’s diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa.
In 2003, Alan was declared legally blind, and stopped working because he could no longer drive to visit his customers. Having to give up his job in his early forties was not easy for Alan. Without the help of a therapist, Alan feels he may have never pulled himself out of depression.
Oddly, Alan can see perfectly when looking straight ahead—albeit through an ever-narrowing field of vision. It’s his peripheral vision and night vision that are currently affected. To explain what he doesn’t see, he turns his hands into binoculars before his eyes to show his limited vision. “Peripheral vision loss is like looking through a straw,” says Alan.
Because Alan has had a gradual reduction of vision, he’s been able to adapt to his vision loss through the help of his guide dog, Kili. Gifted through the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, Kili is Alan’s second guide dog and is responsible for Alan and making sure he travels safely.
However, it was more difficult to deal with the loss of his job. “Retirement is for people who prepare for it,” says Alan. And he wasn’t prepared. He needed to do something, to find a way to help, to reach out to others in need. He decided to call an organization that provided him with a driver to go grocery shopping, the Voluntary Services for the Blind (VSB), which serves Fairfield County in Connecticut. He was determined to be a spokesperson, “for people who aren’t heard enough, who don’t speak for themselves, who are the most vulnerable,” says Alan.
Alan found himself involved in policy decisions and decided to join the VSB as a board member, where he worked to help people understand the needs of the blind. “Blind people need other people to drive. Drivers are the toughest thing to find, and gas is expensive,” he says. “Blind people also need help with their bills, and other items that must be read,” he continues.
Thirteen years ago, he attended a presentation by the Greenwich Lions Club, and soon after, they asked him to become a member. Being a member of the Greenwich Lions Club provides Alan the opportunity to share his story as a visually impaired member of society. It was through his work with the Lions Club and the generous support of the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation that he received his first guide dog, Fia.
Alan is a past president and currently serves as the secretary and Lions KidSight coordinator. In 2016, he received the international service organization’s most prestigious recognition. The Melvin Jones Fellow Award recognizes an individual Lion “for dedicated humanitarian services.” The award is named for Melvin Jones, the mid-western businessman who founded what is now the world’s largest service club in 1917.
As the Greenwich Lions Club KidSight coordinator, Alan provides school-aged children with free vision screenings using the Welch Allyn® Spot™ Vision Screener. The Spot Vision Screener is an instrument-based vision screener that can quickly and easily detect vision issues on children as young as six months of age. As simple as taking a picture, the Spot™ Vision Screener can detect vision risk factors such as myopia, hyperopia, astigmatism, anisometropia, strabismus, and anisocoria without much cooperation from the child. “With the Spot Vision Screener, we can help these children get glasses if they need them,” says Alan.
In the town of Greenwich, CT, the Lions Club has used the Spot Vision Screener to screen more than 2,500 children in first, fourth, and fifth grade this year. Alan attributes the speed and accuracy of the Spot Vision Screener to their success in screening a large volume of children. “It would take school nurses three to four weeks to do what we’re able to do in two days,” says Alan.
This is the Lion’s Club third year of pediatric vision screening in Title I schools, and its second year in every public elementary school in Greenwich, CT. The Spot Vision Screener allows Lions Club volunteers to test Greenwich children who are too young for an eye chart but are exhibiting signs of needing glasses.
It may seem unfortunate Alan’s career ended in his mid-forties, but Alan is living a fulfilling life. His community involvement has given him great satisfaction and a sense of purpose.
He lives by the words of George Bernard Shaw: “I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and, as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die. The harder I work, the more I live.”
The Welch Allyn team would like to thank Alan Gunzburg for sharing his incredible story and for the work he does every single day to help save children’s vision.