By Seth Gonzales
The Texas Catholic
FARMERS BRANCH — Six years ago, principal Matthew Krause learned that one of his students at Mary Immaculate Catholic School was going blind. He and the school community wasted no time wrapping their arms around then-7-year-old Zach Thibodeaux and his parents. As far as Krause was concerned, Thibodeaux was “our brother.”
So began a challenge that would test the adaptability, perseverance and faith of everyone from Thibodeaux to his teachers.
In 2010, after months of eye tests and multiple pairs of prescription glasses, Thibodeaux was told he had an irreversible eye disorder called cone-rod dystrophy, a disease that poisons the retina to the point of total blindness.
It’s a rare disease that, according to the National Institute of Health, affects only 1 in 40,000 people. But that didn’t matter to Thibodeaux or his mother Johanna Uek. The reality that he was going blind was tough to swallow.
“It was crushing,” Uek said. “I had to excuse myself to use the restroom and I started crying. I knew from what they were telling me that he was going to lose his vision. He had lost his vision so quickly, I knew that there was a more than likely possibility that he would go completely blind.”
In barely one year, Thibodeaux’s vision deteriorated from 20/200 to 20/1000, a rapid and precipitous drop. It was a stark, urgent indicator of the need for Thibodeaux to adapt quickly. It was also a sign of the enormity of the challenge, one that would stretch both Thibodeaux and his mother to their limits.
“When I was younger, I did ask why I had to suffer this pain that I see none of my friends suffering,” Zach said. “But honestly, it’s really helped to develop my character. I’ve accepted it and it’s a part of my life. If you just accept it and work with it, it’ll make your life much easier.”
Among other things that have made Thibodeaux’s life easier was the support he and his mother received from Mary Immaculate. Krause was in his first year leading the school when word came that Zach was losing his sight. Shortly after he received the news, he met with Thibodeaux’s parents and discussed the best path forward as it pertained to their son’s academic options; should he stay at Mary Immaculate, or move to a public school, where services for the blind would be readily available and more affordable.
“I held out my commitment to keep Zach a Mustang,” Krause said. “I told them he started a Mustang, he should finish a Mustang. But I had to give that decision to them because they were the ones who were going to have to pay for it.”
Citing his immersion in a Christ-centered, academic environment, Uek decided she wanted her son to remain at Mary Immaculate and provided him with a tutor for the visually impaired who would work with Mary Immaculate teachers to help Thibodeaux through his lessons – additional money she would spend out of her own pocket.
Six years later, Krause said Thibodeaux has flourished and provided the school community with an example of what it means to persevere and have faith.
“He’s one of the toughest little kids I’ve ever met,” Krause said. “He’s taught those kids that, ok, he’s got a little bit of a difference. He can’t see and he’s lost a sense. But everything else still works and he does just fine. He has coped magnificently.”
As he moves through the halls with seemingly little effort, Thibodeaux said he occasionally thinks about the fact that this is his last year at Mary Immaculate, a place he calls home. When he graduates with his friends in May 2017, he will begin a new chapter of his life in high school and bring with him the lessons he taught Mary Immaculate.
“People who are blind have the power to do as much as a visual person can,” Thibodeaux said. “It’s just who they are. It’s not something they wanted. They have it. It was given to them. It’s not their fault.”