Light at the End of the Tunnel

A lot of us take for granted all the beautiful things we can see.  But a Bayou St. John man takes in every sunset as if it's his last.  A rare eye condition may lead to total darkness for Eric Hartman, but he brings light to others in the most magnificent ways.

"People can walk by and see there's a house with some flowers. I see a bloom and it might be an incredible bloom." Hartman said.

With paint and imagination, thousands of brush strokes chronicle things he can barely see. In time, doctors say Hartman will see nothing at all.

Hartman was an 11-year-old student at Holy Rosary when he learned his vision would slowly disappear. He and a friend were about to present their social studies projects at the school early one morning.

"My buddy was there and he said my project is right inside the door... The janitor opened the door for me and I walked right across the project because I went from bright sunlight to a darkened hall," he said.

An eye exam revealed his vision was deteriorating. By the time he was 25, he was legally blind and unable to drive.

It is a hereditary retinal degenerative disease called choroideremia. It strikes one in 50,000 people, mostly men. Eric's mother passed the X chromosome defect on to him and his brother. Two of his four sisters are carriers.

"It gives you tunnel vision, like you're looking through a tunnel and you see straight ahead. You don't see anything in the periphery," said Dr. Maria Reinoso, a retinal specialist at LSU Health Science Center.

She says eventually it affects all of your vision. The disease robs an area called the choroid of protein that keeps the eye healthy.

"The choroid is this layer that has all the blood vessels and it feeds the retina. If that doesn't work the retina cells die," Reinoso said.

Hartman says he has to back up 15 feet to see what he's painting.  "I sometimes realize I've painted the wrong branch and then I have two areas I need to fix. It slows the art process," he says.

The process begins with stunning photographs that Hartman captures.  He paints from the images shown on a large computer screen.

"When I paint I have a blinder because I use bright lights to one side. When I have a blinder I can actually block that light," he said.

He points to marshes he painted in Napa Valley after Katrina. He's also been to Denmark, France and elsewhere across Europe. He paints the places he loves, painstakingly through a tunnel of vision.

He is fighting to save what little sight he has. Eric is executive director of the Choroideremia Research Foundation.

"For people who have young kids, in five years they may be able to get the therapy and never go blind," he said. "In my case I might be able to sustain what I have left."

Regardless, he continues doing what no one ever imagined he could. He is recording his own memories for others to share when and if his sight is gone.

"What's the absolute last thing you want to see," We asked him.

"The old bridge on Bayou St. John," he said. " I love that view looking down on City Park."