Losing eye sight while leaning on faith, family and church
By Lindsay Peyton
Looking at Hillary Oswald, it would be almost impossible to know that she might be having trouble looking back at you. There are only subtle indications that her sight is fading – except her ever-present guide dog Alika provides a clue. Oswald leans on faith – her family and her church – as she moves full steam ahead.
“It’s nothing really big,” Oswald said. “It’s just a lot of little things that are different.”
Most people in College Station, where she grew up and still resides, know her by her parents – her father Pastor Jerry House of Christ UMC and mother Jana House, who serves as GroupLife director at the church. Oswald grew up with a large church family.
“Someone is always looking out for you and wondering how you’re doing,” she said.
In fact, a church member helped her find the doctor who was finally able to diagnose her condition.
Oswald first noticed problems with her sight in middle school. “I was big into sports, volleyball and track,” she said.
But when the white volleyball would travel up over the net, into the ceiling and light, she lost the ability to track it. She could not see the difference, because there was no contrast. She also could not see well in the dark.
At first, she was diagnosed her with macular degeneration. With the help of a church member, however, she got an appointment at Mayo Clinic in Boston. There, she learned that she had retinis pigmentosa.
This rare, genetic disorder breaks down cells in the retina, affecting light sensitive tissue in the back of the eye. “It progresses with time,” Oswald said. “I learned I would go totally blind in my 50s or 60s.”
Still, that did not deter her from finishing high school. And she simply ran track instead of playing volleyball. She earned her undergraduate degree from Texas A&M in 2018 and married Scott Oswald that December. She first met him in elementary school.
Oswald decided to get a guide dog in college to help her navigate campus. Initially, she worried that she would not be able to teach with her declining vision. Her great-grandmother, two grandmothers and mother had all been teachers, and she wanted to follow their footsteps.
“I thought it would be impossible,” she said. “But my mentor was amazing. She said, ‘You can do it. Your classroom just might look different.’”
Now, Oswald is in her second year at the charter school, International Leadership of Texas in College Station, where she teaches 4th grade math.
Her students often forget that she has vision problems. She asks them to use pens instead of pencils to help see the contrast. The class also does a lot of work on the board and on their computers.
“They have to explain their work to me, which is good for them,” Oswald said.
She still runs and competes in marathons. She also plays beep ball, a version of baseball for the blind, in which all of the players, who have varying abilities with sight, are blindfolded, except the pitcher and the catcher. The ball and bases make buzzing sounds. Her father often plays pitcher.
Oswald loves going to the movies, where audio description is available.
In general, she said, dealing with the diagnosis has taught her many lessons – from being present to being flexible in situations and looking for new solutions. She admits there are times when she gets frustrated and wonders why she has to deal with retinis pigmentosa at all.
“But I know there’s always someone going through something harder,” she said.
Growing up with as a pastor’s child has also been a blessing. “If I weren’t a believer, I don’t know where I’d be,” she said. “There are definitely times I want to give up. But I’ve never doubted God.”
God may not heal her sight, Oswald added. Still, she is confident that from what she learns, she can help others who are on the same path.
“God has a plan,” she said. “I get to share my story – and to share my faith through that.”
In fact, already she has been able to model behavior for students with learning disabilities. She lets them know, “I have difficulties too. You’re not alone.”
Oswald says that everyone has a difficulty of some type. “We all have something about us that we don’t like or doesn’t work or whatever,” she said. “It might not be visible to other people, but everyone has it.”
Hillary Oswald is the first in our new series entitled “People in the Pews.” The column will showcase the amazing people who might be sitting right beside you at church. If you know someone who inspires others through their leadership, generosity, volunteerism, creativity, compassion or dedication to faith, and would like to share their story, please contact us at email@example.com.