An older woman lightly touching a red scarf around her neck looks up where behind her a younger woman piloting a war plane waves and is wearing the same red scarf around her neck. The image of the younger woman is in the shape of a cloud, suggesting that she is a memory.

Gee, Thanks, Dad

“Could you be my grandmother’s half-sister?” That message landed in my email inbox in March of 2019. I had given up looking for her online months before. She was 22 years my senior and had moved to California with her mother and stepfather when I was a child. “Yes, I was Norma Jean’s half-sister.”

A previously unknown medical history

The phone call led to meeting her sons and their children and spouses. In the space of that one call I had a new family and access to an unknown medical history.

Penny, as she preferred to be called, was a remarkable woman. I found out that in the 1930’s she earned the money for her pilot’s training working odd jobs at a small airport. In World War II she was one of the 1,100 members of the Women’s Air Service Pilots. WASPs did the routine flying jobs (ferrying aircraft, towing targets, testing new planes) so that male pilots could go off to war. In 1977, the WASPs were finally recognized as veterans and in 2009 received the Congressional Gold Medal.

Wet AMD diagnosis

My wet AMD diagnosis came four months after that email and soon after visiting her grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

When I told a nephew’s wife, she said, “Oh, Penny had that. She found out when she was in her mid-70’s but she made sure that it would never keep her from doing anything she really wanted to do.”

We likely inherited some propensity for AMD from our father. Gee, thanks, Dad. As a legacy, I would rather have had cash.

Genetics and AMD

Scientists are cautious about linking inheritance and AMD. The National Library of Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, says, “Age-related macular degeneration usually does not have a clear-cut pattern of inheritance, although the condition appears to run in families in some cases. An estimated 15 to 20 percent of people with AMD have at least one first-degree relative (such as a sibling or parent) with the condition.”

Risk factors

I don’t know if our father had AMD. He was out of our lives early on and died when I was in my late 20’s. I do know that both Penny and I smoked; not a good thing for many reasons in addition to increasing our risk for AMD.

My guess is that Penny’s children and grandchildren are aware of her vision loss and are doing all they should be to reduce their chances of developing AMD: not smoking, making healthy diet choices, wearing sunglasses, getting regular eye health checkups, and monitoring their vision using the Amsler grid.

My role model

I regret not meeting Penny. She must have been a terrific person. I know she was spunky and determined, courageous, and enthusiastic. I like to think of myself as that way. She is certainly my role model for how to deal with our common malady.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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