Son Returns to Louisiana to Join Mother to Help the Blind

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Josh Fernandes, M.D., remembers his mother's childhood fear: the inevitable disappearance of the sun.

His mother, Joanne Wilson, was only four when she was told that she would lose her sight to an aggressive form of retinitis pigmentosa, which is an inherited retinal disease that gradually causes loss of vision throughout someone's lifetime. There is no definitive cure.

Joanne Wilson
Dr. Joshua Fernandes as a boy, (far left) and his siblings read a story book alongside their mother, who reads the story in braille. This illustrates their mother’s efforts to maintain a normal lifestyle for her children, said Fernandes.

"I have often heard her tell stories of her difficulties as a child, living in fear of the sun going down, and years later her struggles as her field of vision deteriorated. However, shortly after completely losing her vision in her 20s, my mother made the decision to not let her blindness stand in the way of living a normal, productive life," he said.

Her decision to found a world-renowned training center for the blind was the catalyst for Fernandes' career as an ophthalmologist specializing in disease and surgery of the retina.

"Through her efforts, I have had the opportunity to work with hundreds of blind and visually-impaired individuals. While I have seen many individuals succeed, I have also witnessed the irreparable struggles of losing one's vision. Like my mother, it is those individuals who suffer from retinal disease who often struggle the most, and are the ones that I have a personal interest in helping."

Wilson, the founder of Louisiana Center for the Blind in Ruston, said her son Fernandes, who was four years old when the center began in 1985, showed empathy and passion from an early age. "I always bragged that he was the best assistant I ever had. He read to the students, drove them places, and was so meticulous about details. He was tactful and knew how to deal with people; he was very sensitive to their feelings and needs. He learned be an advocate for causes, give speeches, fundraise, and organize meetings. He was part of our cause. I asked him, 'Did I ruin your life? I wasn't home baking cookies.' He said, 'No, I discovered my calling."'

Her five children - all of whom accompanied their mother as she built the center - were given a "purpose," said Fernandes. They observed her as she changed attitudes surrounding blindness, and empowered the blind to live normal lives. "We were helping others to live their lives to the fullest. I think it taught us a lot of responsibility and self-motivation. The experience instilled in us the values we needed to live independent lives. She knew what she was doing."

Fernandes went on to earn his undergraduate degree at Tulane University, followed by medical school at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He then completed an ophthalmology residency at the University of Chicago, where he served as Chief Resident. Lastly, he completed a two-year fellowship in vitreoretinal disease and surgery at Northwestern University in Chicago. He recently returned to north Louisiana to practice ophthalmology. He joined Joseph Barron, M.D., at The Eye Clinic of Monroe.

Fernandes performs his surgeries at P&S Surgical Hospital, where he utilizes some of the "most advanced equipment on the market for surgery inside the eye." "I am excited to bring this technology to the patients in our region." His profession holds special meaning for him. "Why would I do anything else other than something that has personal meaning to me? I manage many complex diseases such as advanced diabetic eye disease, macular degeneration, retinal detachment, and rare inflammatory conditions; many of these would lead to blindness if not treated early.''

Wilson is thankful for her son's return. "I'm really proud of what he's doing, and that he returned to Louisiana. He's needed here. He could have gone anywhere in the country. He felt like he wanted to give back to the community that shaped him."

By Laura Clark
Special to the News-Star

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