Dad may not see children grow up

DECORATED war veteran Russ Welsh stares lovingly at his wife and three beautiful children – cherishing each day he sees their faces knowing that a genetic condition will eventually turn him blind.

The former RAF firefighter ponders the wedding ceremonies he may never see, the football games he may never play with his son and prom dresses he may never see his gorgeous daughters in.

As he opens his eyes each day the 42-year-old wonders if this will be the one when his eye sight has finally deserted him.

Russ had spread his wings across the globe after joining the RAF at just 17, a career which saw him serve his country in Cyprus, Northern Ireland, the Falklands and the first Gulf War and even help out in the aftermath of the Lockerbie bombing.

But while carrying out a night exercise when he was just 24 he noticed his vision wasn’t what it should be and turned to the forces medical officer.

He was quickly shipped home and his world was torn apart when experts diagnosed him with the rare genetic eye disorder choroideremia and was told he would eventually go blind.

Russ said: “The whole world was just turned upside down. I just couldn’t contemplate what I was being told. I was just devastated.”

As his condition deteriorated he was forced to quit his beloved career and return home to Hartlepool to live with a ticking time-bomb waiting to lose his sight.

The condition affects just one in 50,000 to 100,000 people.

But Russ was determined to carry on with his life.

The former Hartlepool Sixth Form College student said: “I was determined to get on with my life. I could have just sat and waited to go blind. But I decided I had to live my life. It could happen tomorrow or it could happen in 10 years so I got on with it.”

It was back in Hartlepool’s Church Street when Russ met his wife-to-be Andrea, now 39, on a night out in 1996 and took the decision to tell her about the condition on the first night they met.

He said: “It might seem straight. But I wouldn’t try to keep that from anyone. I told her straight away, many would have run a mile, but not Andrea. She’s been amazing.”

The couple married four years later and 11 years on they now have three children, Charlotte, 15, Alex, six and one-year-old James.

They are the love of Russ’s life. He even describes his loving children as the “best guide dogs in the world” for the way they help their dad through his tough day-to-day life.

But they are also the source of his greatest heartache.

Russ, who currently has just 12 per cent sight, with no peripheral vision or perception of depth, said: “The one worry I really have is that I may not be able to see my children grow up.

“To see them do things such as get married or other big events in their life. That is the only thing that worries me. Because of that I cherish seeing them every day.”

Eventually, Russ will lose his sight to the hereditary condition, brought about because his body does not produce enough of a particular nutrient.

But he does not dwell on it and refuses to let it get in the way of him enjoying his busy family and social life. Today, Russ, of Grosmont Road, Seaton Carew, works in IT at a firm in Peterlee and has immense support from his loving family.

Russ said: “I can get around so long as there is sufficient light.

“Without my family I would certainly struggle a lot more.

“I need to know where things are in the home and they help me avoid obstacles when it’s dark and we go out together.

“My kids make the best guide dogs in the world.

“They intuitively know when I need help without me even asking.”

The dedicated family man has no idea when his condition will claim his sight completely.

He added: “When I was first diagnosed I was told I could possibly be blind within two years.

“It is such a wide prognosis, some people with the condition retain the use of their sight well into their 50s, but others have lost it by the time they are 30.

“The doctors cannot give me an accurate time, it could be one year, it could be the next five.

“Because I have had such a long time to get used to it, I adapt to it and there is always a way round things.

“I try not to dwell on it and there are always people worse off than yourself.”