At 11 years old, Adrianna Kenebrew dreams of going to the Olympics to win gold as a gymnast— and she won’t let the fact that she’s legally blind stand in the way.
In early October, the Houston sixth grader competed in a gymnastics meet, six days before undergoing laser surgery for her glaucoma, the 12th surgery she’s had in her young life.
Adrianna’s passion for gymnastics began when she was just four, but really sparked when she watched the 2012 Olympics.
“I just really want to be Gabby Douglas because she is really kind and she’s a role model for everyone,” she said. “It’s just fun to move around and swing, flip and tumble. My favorite event would be floor or bars. I feel like I totally got it.”
When Adrianna was four months old, her parents noticed her eyes would frequently water and that she was uncomfortable in sunlight. Her pediatrician monitored her condition, before sending her to Texas Children’s Hospital where they found that the pressure in her eye was higher than an adult, indicating glaucoma.
“It’s a blessing we caught it early, because there was no damage to the nerve, but she’s had several surgeries over the years to try to preserve the vision she does have and get the glaucoma under control,” her mother, Asha told FoxNews.com.
Pediatric glaucoma occurs in about 1 in 10,000 live births, a relatively rare and uncommon condition that is diagnosed within the first year of life— typically between 4 and 8 months— for about 80 percent of patients. Because it causes almost no symptoms, the condition causes a gradual, painless loss of vision that most patients don’t even realize is happening, Adrianna’s doctor, Dr. Peter Chang, associate professor of ophthalmology at Texas Children’s Hospital (TCH) and Baylor College of Medicine (BCM), told FoxNews.com.
For children younger than age 3, high pressure in the eye associated with glaucoma often causes enlargement of the eye, as well as clouding of the cornea, causing a milky or glassy appearance, swelling and sensitivity to light.
“The problem is when it’s in both eyes— which most of the time it does [occur]— the symmetrical enlargement of both eyes,” Chang said. “Parents and unfortunately doctors don’t recognize early signs of glaucoma… in some cultures big eyes are considered cosmetically appealing.”
Adrianna’s glaucoma was very, very aggressive, Chang said, and she’s had multiple surgeries -- including two glaucoma drainage implant surgeries in both eyes -- because her pressure was so elevated.
“About 80 percent of the time, that’s the last surgery they need for their glaucoma,” Chang said. “It’s highly unusual that glaucoma is so aggressive that we need to have two implants put in each eye.”
On October 10, Adrianna underwent a laser procedure that selectively targets tissues in the eye making the fluid, in order to reduce the amount of fluid production in each eye.
“It’s almost like turning down the faucet if the sink is backing up,” Chang said.
According to Chang, the surgery went well and it will take one to two months to determine the effect it had on the tissues.
Adrianna also has cataracts, likely related to her glaucoma, and has undergone the surgical interventions required. She has a lens implant in her right eye to help her eye focus and doctors are monitoring a small cataract in her left eye, that so far has not affected her vision.
Another side effect of glaucoma, in children, is that they can become very nearsighted. Her left eye prescription is -15.5 and her right eye -7. The right eye is lower because the implant helps her focus.
“I’m so impressed that she can do gymnastics with that level of vision,” Dr. Kimberly Yen, associate professor of ophthalmology at TCH and BCM, who monitors Adrianna’s cataracts, told FoxNews.com. “That she’s compensated and found ways to live with her visual disability.”
Adrianna’s school, church, and gymnastics communities have been very supportive, Asha said. At the Charles Drew Intermediate School, she works with a visual impairment teacher who helps when work needs to be enlarged, and she has an Optron CCTV mounted on a rolling cart that projects images for her to see better.
Adrianna has an orientation and mobility instructor through school who is working with her to improve her cane skills, so when the need arises she can use it comfortably.
“The goal here is to have Adrianna live a successful life independently, teaching her the skills to be able to do that,” Asha said.
When Adrianna was 4 she asked for a balance beam and started attending the Texas Academy of Acrobatics and Gymnastics (TAAG). According to Asha, her coaches may not even have realized anything was wrong because Adrianna went out and did the same things as the other students.
“I never heard her say, ‘I can’t’,” she said. “They believe in her and she just has a heart of gold and just gets out there and tries her hardest.”
Her doctors haven’t expressed any concern that gymnastics could affect her glaucoma and Adrianna is in the gym five days a week.
Fortunately, her multiple surgeries have not taken Adrianna away from the gym for too long. At her meet on October 4, she stayed on the beam during her routine, a big accomplishment for her because it’s so hard to see the beam, Asha said.
In 2013, the Texas Amateur Athletic Federation named her the TAAG Female Athlete of the Year. Now, she’s setting her goals even higher.
“I think what I want to be is the first visually impaired gymnast to win gold at the Olympics,” she said.