Grayson pressed his face to the toy piano, his eyelashes brushing the surface.
As the music spilled forth, he scanned the piano until he found his prize: the tiny red “on” light. A smile spread across his face and he tilted his head side to side to examine the glowing dot with each eye.
If there’s a light, Grayson Thebo could find it. And remember it. And return to it again and again.
Thick cataracts covered both Grayson’s eyes—most likely since birth. But his fascination with lights showed he had some vision.
If the cataracts were removed, would he be able to see? And how much difference would it make?
Grayson—and his parents—would soon find out.
Grayson joined Kim and Brian Thebo’s family in 2019, adopted as a 3-year-old from China.
The Thebos specifically sought to adopt a child with vision impairments.
Their oldest daughter, Jordyn Castor, was born blind. Now 25 years old, she works as a computer engineer and lives out of state.
“She has no vision. She has prosthetics in both eyes. And she is pretty amazing,” Kim said. “We knew just because a child is blind doesn’t mean they can’t go on to do whatever they want.”
As Jordyn and her two younger sisters reached their teens and 20s, the Thebos decided to expand their family. In 2017, they adopted Theo, who is blind, from an orphanage in China.
Two years later, when Theo was 5, they returned to China to adopt Grayson.
At the orphanage, they met his caregivers. They gave him loving attention and care, but the home did not have access to the specialized medical care needed to treat his cataracts.
After bringing Grayson to their home in Rockford, Michigan, the Thebos soon made an appointment for him with Brooke Geddie, DO, a pediatric ophthalmologist at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
Smiling and energetic Grayson quickly won over his doctor.
“Grayson is just a charmer,” Dr. Geddie said. “He is so sweet you could fall in love with him from day one.”
She and the Thebos discussed surgery to remove his cataracts. Dr. Geddie said she couldn’t predict how well Grayson would be able to see after surgery.
One big unknown: the ocular structures of his eyes. Just as the cataracts blocked Grayson’s vision, they blocked Dr. Geddie’s view of the ocular structures behind the cataract.
Until she removed the cataracts, Dr. Geddie could not adequately evaluate the retina and optic nerve, also vital for vision.
Also, Grayson had missed out on visual development in the first three years of his life.
“Visual development is really important in infants and young children,” Dr. Geddie said. “With the cataracts severely limiting his vision during those vital years, we didn’t know neurologically how much his vision would improve once the cataracts were removed.”
She told Grayson’s parents, “Of course, we will do everything we can to improve Grayson’s vision. But there is a possibility the surgery will not improve things at all.”
In the meantime, Grayson adapted to his new home.
He followed his big brother, Theo, around the house. He learned where the toys were in the living room.
He ate with a hearty appetite, banging on his highchair tray when he wanted more food.
And always, Grayson gravitated toward any speck of light and examined it intently.
First cataract removed
His first cataract surgery occurred Nov. 14, 2019, about five weeks after Grayson arrived in the U.S.
That morning, he waited restlessly with his parents in a pre-op room before his surgery at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital
To entertain him, a nurse brought in a Vecta machine, a tall device that combines, color, lights and music to entertain and distract children. Grayson practically embraced it, pressing his face to the tube. He grinned and oohed as the lights changed color.
Soon, he lay in the operating room, as Dr. Geddie performed the surgery to remove the cataract from his right eye.
Grayson’s retina and optic nerve appeared healthy, she said, promising for the opportunity for improved vision.
A patch remained on Grayson’s right eye for the next 24 hours.
The next day, Kim took him to Dr. Geddie’s office. Grayson sat on his mother’s lap as Dr. Geddie removed the bandage from his right eye. Grayson bounced, chattered and smiled as he always did.
But it wasn’t clear whether he saw more than he had before. Even once he was home, his parents noticed gradual changes, but no dramatic signs that his vision had improved.
Dr. Geddie noted the right eye had the more severe cataract.
“Before surgery, his brain had most likely been relying on the vision, although limited, of the left eye,” she said.
It would take time and treatment for the visual development of the right eye to improve. The brain was just not used to using that eye.
A dramatic difference
A month later, Grayson returned to the hospital for surgery on his left eye.
Again, his parents took him to Dr. Geddie’s clinic the next day to have the patch removed.
This time, there was no doubt about Grayson’s reaction.
As the patch came off, he looked directly at his mother, reached up and grabbed her nose.
He continued to look around as they left the clinic. When they passed a Christmas tree decorated for the holidays, Grayson stopped and stared at the colorful lights. A big smile spread across his face.
In the weeks and months following surgery, Grayson’s vision continued to improve.
Wearing glasses, he had 20/130 vision by January. By summer, it was 20/80.
That means Grayson must be 20 feet from an object that a person with no visual impairment person could see at 80 feet.
Although he may always have visual impairment, that is still a drastic improvement, Dr. Geddie said. Before surgery, she estimated his vision at 20/2700.
And he still has the opportunity for further gains as his visual development continues.
At home, Grayson showed a growing visual awareness.
He recognized all his family members and could point to them. He liked to FaceTime his sister Jordyn in California.
“He wants to play with three toys at a time,” Kim said.
When out at a store with his mom, he was no longer content to hold his mom’s hand and walk beside her. Instead, he wanted to rush down the aisles by himself.
Soon he started to look at books and to color pictures.
In the summer, he jumped into outdoor activities without any fear. He jumped on the trampoline, played on the swing set and swam in a pool.
He even tried ziplining.
“He loved it,” Kim said. “He is adventurous and super funny. He has a really good sense of humor.”
And Grayson still adores his big brother.
“He likes following him around and copying everything he does,” Kim said.
Grayson also has overcome other medical challenges. After he arrived in the U.S., he underwent surgery to remove his tonsils and adenoids, which interfered with his breathing when he slept.
He had blockages cleared from his ears and he began to receive speech therapy.
Ready for school
Dr. Geddie looks forward to future visits from Grayson. With continued visual input to the brain, she hopes his vision will continue to improve, but no one can predict what time will bring.
However, Grayson also has access to services for visually impaired children, such as learning aids and help with orientation and mobility.
“It has been so rewarding watching him grow,” Dr. Geddie said. “Every time I see him, he is doing more visually and developmentally. He certainly is more confident, independent and visually interactive.”
In August, Grayson celebrated his 4th birthday.
In September, he put on a yellow backpack and climbed the steps of the school bus, ready for a new year of preschool.
It has been more than a year since Grayson joined the Thebo family. Those days have flown by for his parents.
And Grayson, through all the doctor visits and several surgeries, has remained “a super happy little kid,” Kim said. “He just kind of goes with the flow.
“He is such a blessing. I can’t imagine life without him. He is the perfect addition to our family.”