Finding a diagnosis at last

Imagine what it would be like to live with a vision condition for more than 70 years, wondering why you can’t accomplish some tasks that seem so easy to those around you. Knowing you see colors differently than everyone else, but not knowing why.

This is what happened to my friend Lee, who was diagnosed with colorblindness two years ago at the age of 71. No ophthalmologist had ever tested her for the condition, perhaps in part because it is estimated that only 0.5 percent of females is colorblind.

“It didn’t surprise me that I can’t tell colors one from another, but nobody actually told me that until a couple years ago,” she said. “I see colors, but when it comes to red and orange, I can’t tell those apart. I can’t tell black from navy blue. I can’t tell purple from navy blue. The leaves on the trees and the tree bark almost look identical. My daughter’s favorite color is orange. Many times when I have been out shopping if it doesn’t say right on there what color it is, I will have to ask somebody, ‘What color is this to you?’ They’ll say it’s orange, and I’ll say it looks red to me. They will say, ‘Why do you ask?’ And I’ll say I can’t see colors. There a lot of them that I can’t tell. It’s weird. It’s always been like that.”

Lee, a native Kansan, lived in the same house with her parents and brother for 20 years, graduated from the traditional public school system, and went on to complete some college courses. She is not aware that anyone else in her family was colorblind, although it wasn’t something they discussed. “I’m the first one who ever heard anything about being colorblind. No one else in my family ever had a problem with it. I think I’m just out there by myself.” Her two children and two grandchildren are both fully-color sighted.

Lee’s mother was a seamstress who took it upon herself to approve Lee’s outfits before she left the house.

“That was more her choice. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t see the colors. Mom always looked very sharp to me. Everything matched. But she never said to me, ‘What’s your problem? Why are you having difficulty with that?”

When Lee took home economics and had a sewing assignment, her mom would help her pick out the fabric.

“We would go downtown to the fabric shop and I would pick out things and she would say, ‘That doesn’t go together’ and I would say ‘Yeah, it does.’ so she’d put one of them back and get one of them that was comparable to someone who wasn’t colorblind, but to me it looked really odd. I had to make a skirt and they wanted the waistband one color and skirt another color. I put red and orange together and she said they clashed. That was a word she used a lot with me–no that clashes, that clashes.”

Today, her husband Frank approves her outfits before she hits the door.

“I don’t think about my clothes that much. Only when I’m getting ready to go to church or out somewhere. A lot of times I will ask Frank, ‘Does this go together?’ He doesn’t mind at all.”

Lee was a self-professed “lousy student” who went on to a 37-year career at a bank and is now retired. One of her favorite pastimes over the years has been watercolor painting. She loves scenes in nature the most.

“I love sunrises and sunsets. I think they’re just gorgeous, even though I can’t tell all the colors. I just think they’re pretty. Years ago, we were traveling somewhere by plane and up on the clouds the sun hit just like it does on water, and it was brilliant, it was beautiful! I said, ‘Wow, Frank, look at that. There’s the sunset on the clouds.”

Lee loves to paint sunrises and sunsets, even though she can't see the colors the way most people do.

Lee loves to paint sunrises and sunsets, even though she can’t see the colors the way most people do.

As we sat discussing her vision issues, it was fascinating to watch Lee realize different areas of her life where she had not understood the impact of her colorblindness. She didn’t know that most people can tell if they have clicked an online link because it changes from blue to purple (she can’t see the red in purple). She had never considered that she might undercook a piece of meat because she can’t tell when the pink is gone. When I told her that my sons had trouble picking blueberries because they can’t tell the unripe red and green from the deep purple, another light bulb went on.

“We had grapevines at home,” Lee exclaimed. “I would pick more green ones than purple ones. I even remember Dad would comment, ‘Why did you pick those?’ I think he eventually had my brother pick them. Now I know why.”

Yet as with every colorblind person I’ve ever talked to, Lee’s attitude about it is a positive one. She and my youngest son now even have a special greeting when they pass in the hall at church: “You still colorblind today?” “Yep, you?” “Yep.”



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