Christine Ha Becomes First Blind “MasterChef” Contestant

It’s often said that the loss of one of your five senses heightens the others.

Whether this will become an asset for MasterChef’s first blind contestant, Christine Ha, remains to be seen.

Ha, 33 was given a MasterChef apron by judges Gordon Ramsay, Graham Elliot and Joe Bastianich in the opening episode of Season 3.

Ha began losing her vision at age 19 when she was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease called Neuromyelitis Optica.

As Ha told People magazine:

The very first bout I had was in 1999. It only happened in one eye then. It didn’t recover completely so I learned to adjust to seeing out of one eye. In 2004, it decreased to the level where I could no longer drive. In 2007, it decreased to where I am now. I have to use a cane to walk around or take somebody’s arm and be guided.

But Ha still loved cooking and has had to make some adjustments to her cooking skills.

It’s hard to see ingredients. I have to figure out by smell and touch if an ingredient is fresh. Cutting with knives – fortunately, I’m pretty careful and I have a proper knife technique. Since I’ve lost my vision, I’ve cut myself once. And it was minor. I’ve never had to get stitches. It’s really about being organized, careful and using my other senses.

What is Neuromyelitis Optica?

Neuromyelitis optica (NMO) is an uncommon autoimmune disease of the central nervous system (CNS) that affects the optic nerves and spinal cord.

Individuals with NMO develop inflammation of the optic nerves, the nerves that connect the eyes to the brain (optic neuritis).  This causes pain in the eye and vision loss.

The same process can affect the spinal cord, causing transverse myelitis. This leads to weakness, numbness, and sometimes paralysis of the arms and legs, along with sensory disturbances and loss of bladder and bowel control.

For as of yet unknown reasons immune system cells and antibodies attack and destroy myelin cells in the optic nerves and the spinal cord.

Myelin is a fatty substance that surrounds nerve fibers and helps nerve signals move from cell to cell.

NMO follows an unpredictable course. Most individuals with the syndrome experience clusters of attacks months or years apart, followed by partial recovery during periods of remission. This relapsing form of NMO primarily affects women.

The female to male ratio is greater than 4:1.

In the past, NMO was considered to be a severe variant of multiple sclerosis (MS) because both can cause attacks of optic neuritis and myelitis. Recent discoveries, however, suggest it is a separate disease. NMO is different from MS in the severity of its attacks and its tendency to solely strike the optic nerves and spinal cord at the beginning of the disease.

The recent discovery of an antibody in the blood of individuals with NMO gives doctors a reliable biologic marker to distinguish NMO from MS. The antibody, known as NMO-IgG, seems to be present in about 70 percent of those with NMO and is not found in people with MS or other similar conditions.

Is there any treatment?

There is no cure for NMO, but there are therapies to treat an attack while it is happening, to reduce symptoms, and to prevent relapses.

Doctors usually treat an initial attack of NMO with a combination of a corticosteroid drug (methylprednisolone) to stop the attack, and an immunosuppressive drug (azathioprine) for prevention of subsequent attacks.

If frequent relapses occur, some individuals may need to continue a low dose of steroids for longer periods. Plasma exchange (plasmapheresis) is a technique that separates antibodies out of the blood stream and is used with people who are unresponsive to corticosteroid therapy.

What is the prognosis?

Most individuals with NMO have an unpredictable, recurring course of disease with attacks occurring months or years apart.

The disability caused by the disease is cumulative. Each attack damages new areas of myelin. Some individuals are severely affected by NMO and can lose vision in both eyes and the use of their arms and legs.

How can I learn more about Neuromyelitis Optica?

Go to the Resounding Health Casebook by clicking here.
Photo: Fox / ©2012 Fox Broadcasting Co.

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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