I am half blind, I am half deaf; I am half Helen Keller.
-Chelsea Elliott, age 10
Becoming “half Helen”
After a failed eye screening revealed that she was blind in her left eye, Chelsea Elliot spent the next few days making trips to eye doctors in attempt to determine the cause behind her vision loss. Several visits later, a retina specialist named Jose “Pepe” Martinez made the diagnosis: Coats’ disease. This rare, monocular ailment causes blood vessels in the back of the eye to constrict and rupture. As the disease progresses, leakage causes the retina to swell and eventually detach, resulting in permanent blindness.
Two years later, Chelsea failed a required hearing test at her elementary school and discovered she was deaf in her right ear. Unconnected to Coats’ disease, the hearing loss resulted from the absence of three small bones in her middle ear that were likely destroyed by infections she had as an infant.
Chelsea would suffer another setback as a teenager when a cataract formed on her lens, and her blind eye became noticeably smaller than her other eye. After consulting with doctors, the decision to remove the eye was made. Six weeks after recovering from her surgery, Chelsea was fitted for a prosthetic eye.
Creating half Helen Foundation
Shortly after graduating from St. Edward’s University, Chelsea learned about the Spot camera. This revolutionary new tool takes 23 measurements of the eye within seconds. Unlike the standard eye chart, which can only measure an individual’s distance acuity, the Spot camera is able to identify six of the most common vision impairments in infants as young as six months old. At the same time, the American Academy of Pediatrics began to recommend that children as young as three have vision screenings. Chelsea realized that if the camera and these new recommendations had been in place when she was a child, her doctors could have spotted her disease sooner and possibly saved her eye.
Motivated by her own struggle, Chelsea turned her personal experience into an opportunity to help others. Using her graduation money, she set out to start half Helen Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides preventive vision and hearing screenings. With the help of the West Austin Lions Club and other donors, Chelsea purchased half Helen’s first Spot camera and two audiometers for screenings.
Chelsea began her work in Hawaii after discovering that, due to budget cuts, the state had stopped conducting mandatory school vision and hearing tests in 1995. After contacting the Maui Lions Club and one local school, Chelsea flew out to present her idea. When she returned to Texas to a week later, she devised a plan to screen each student in every public school on Maui and its neighboring islands, Lanai and Molokai.
Nowadays, Chelsea divides her time between Maui and Texas. As of April 2017, half-Helen Foundation will have screened over 32,000 children in Hawaii and Texas! If children need additional services after being screened, they can receive a full eye exam and corrective wear from other nonprofit organizations that half Helen partners with.
When she’s not screening kids, Chelsea is advocating for legislative change in screening practices. Currently, only a few states allow photoscreening and none require advanced vision screening. Chelsea believes that if she can change the laws in Texas to permit the use of advanced photoscreening technology, then other states will follow suit. Tirelessly pursuing her goal, Chelsea is determined to ensure that children everywhere have access to high-quality, preventive screenings.