Tribune-Courier General Manager
Despite being legally blind since birth, 19-year-old Nick Fleet of Benton is fiercely independent.
He’s grown up successfully doing things for himself despite the challenge of having only very limited eyesight, finding ways to adapt to his disability in every facet of his life.
Now Fleet and his family are hoping a sight-restoring procedure can provide another key to his independence and freedom – a driver’s license.
Doctors in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, have told Nick he is an ideal candidate for a procedure still in the clinical trial phase called SCOTS (Stem Cell Ophthalmology Treatment) to repair his optic nerve which was damaged at birth.
The experimental procedure would take place using Nick’s own stem cells, taken from his spinal column and placed in his eyes.
He would be one of the first with his condition to undergo the procedure in the emerging field of stem-cell therapy.
“He hates having to ask people to do things for him,” said Rita Murray, Nick’s grandmother. “He knows being able to see will enable him to drive and that is the key to a lot of things he hopes to accomplish. He has the determination and it would be a great blessing for him in his life.”
Nick’s mother Mindi said multiple birth defects led to the condition which left Nick blind. Before two months of age he had undergone surgery to repair both his heart and his esophagus.
“By the time he was 1, we knew something was wrong with his eyes,” said Mindi. He was diagnosed with Optic Nerve Colomba, which means an abnormal optic nerve that is deeply hollowed out.”
She compared the condition to a damaged electronic cord connecting a television.
“Imagine that cord being frayed,” said Mindi. This is what Nick sees. “This condition has defined his entire life.”
Because the SCOTS procedure is in the clinical-trial phase, insurance will not cover the estimated $25,000 to $30,000 it will cost, including multiple trips to Florida.
Nick said physicians have given him great hope his condition is one that will respond to the stem cell procedure.
“I see this chance and I want to go for it. If I don’t try I will never know,” said Nick. “I have so much I want to do and it would make it all possible.”
His independence has allowed him to excel in his educational endeavors. He graduated from Marshall County High School in 2013 and is now attending West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah, where he’s working toward a degree in information technology.
Nick and his family are hoping the community will help make the procedure a reality through donations to Nick’s Vision Fund, an account set up at CFSB.
“First and foremost, we are asking for prayers for him, all of his family and his doctors,” said Mindi. “We are reaching out...to help Nick with this next step in his journey.
“With your help, Nick could be one of the first people in history with his condition to receive this surgery. The ripple effect could be enormous. Maybe parents won’t have to hear ‘there is no surgery to repair this’ or ‘I’m sorry, there is nothing we can do.’” said Mindi.
Donations to Nick’s Vision Fund may be made at any branch of CFSB or by mail to P.O. Box 467, Benton, KY 42025.