When Tom Tobin was 21 years old, he had to learn how to read, use a stove, pick out his clothes and walk outside.
He lost his vision due to complications from diabetes when he was a junior at Kenyon College.
Ever since, the Cleveland Heights resident has devoted much of his career to raising money for education programs focused on preventing the life-changing aspects of the disease.
Tobin has participated in the Swim for Diabetes off and on for two decades. This year’s swim was April 20 through April 22 in 49 pools across Northeast Ohio.
For the event this year, Tobin organized a team that helped raise money for the Diabetes Partnership of Cleveland. The local nonprofit helps Northeast Ohioans live well with the disease. Tobin joined the organization's board in January.
Tobin said he’s lived both sides of the coin — half of his life with vision, and half without.
“I woke up after typing a paper and couldn’t see out of my left eye,” said Tobin, now 48.
He noticed something was not right that semester, but it seemed nothing major was amiss. He underwent regular eye exams, as he had since being diagnosed with Type I diabetes at age 9. But doctors didn’t catch his Diabetic Retinopathy — the abnormal blood vessels that were hemorrhaging in the back of his eye.
He regained his vision for a couple months after undergoing a year of surgeries and treatments to try to remove the blood pools and reattach his retinas. Then everything went dark, and has been for the past 27 years.
Tobin, a Shaker Heights native who played soccer and baseball in college, decided he would apply his athletic drive to this new challenge.
“Prior to me losing my vision, I was a big-time jock,” Tobin said. “I channeled my competitive nature to this. I said, ‘I can do this … Are you going to step up or are you going to fail?’ ”
At the Cleveland Sight Center, Tobin learned tasks he had taken for granted for so many years. He also picked up a new language — Braille.
“I was scared to death when I walked into the front doors and sat down in the lobby," Tobin said of his first visit to the Sight Center. "I had no idea what my life would be like being blind.”
After six months of training, Tobin went back to Kenyon and completed his degree in political science. When he came back to Cleveland, he started volunteering for the Sight Center, and launched a career in fundraising.
As a board member of the Diabetes Partnership, his focus is to raise as much money as possible. His mother also was a board member.
“If you can better manage the disease, you can delay or altogether prevent the complications,” he said, explaining his passion for the education programs the partnership offers.
“To be successful in our mission and to be more impactful, we have to raise the money to make that happen," he said. "Right up there with education and advocacy is to help the organization find the financial resources to expand our mission.”
Ann Williams, a clinical nurse specialist and research associate at Case Western Reserve University, has known Tobin since he lost his eyesight. She has no doubt he will succeed.
“He’s one of the most organized and effective people I know. And that would be so with or without his visual impairments. He’s just such a determined and effective person,” she said.
“When he sets his mind on something he really works for it. I would say he’s very committed to helping raise funds for the Diabetes Partnership ... He demonstrates that with absolute integrity,” Williams said.
The Swim for Diabetes team that Williams and Tobin organized to raise money for the Diabetes Partnership call themselves the VIPs — Visually Impaired Persons. Members included those with hearing and vision loss.
On a recent dreary Saturday, the team members' service dogs waited loyally by the pool's edge at Ursuline College while the swimmers did laps and water aerobics.
“We’re a group of people with disabilities, and everybody is going to do what they can do, and that’s acceptable,” said Williams, 60, of Cleveland Heights. “It’s so fun to get together with people and do your swimming, and in our case we’ll have dogs.”
Team VIP has raised nearly $4,000, and the group is still accepting donations through May 18. Tobin hopes to raise $5,000.
“My goal is to really increase the diabetes partnership’s footprint in Northeast Ohio because there’s such a need out there. It’s really critical that this fundraiser and others are successful so that we can generate the revenue we need to benefit the community.”