Nicole Martinez was 34 weeks pregnant when an ultrasound revealed in March that her unborn son, Jackson, had not developed his left eye.
While the news was upsetting to Martinez and her fiancé, Kalani Prior, the couple were comforted that their son would still be able to lead a traditional life and function with a single eye.
“I was in shock at first, and once I got home, I really broke down,” Martinez, from Albuquerque, New Mexico, tells PEOPLE. “Kalani definitely had to stay strong for the both of us because we would have gotten nowhere if we both broke down and started thinking horrible thoughts. He was definitely the stronger one out of the both of us.”
But it wasn’t until Jackson was born via c-section a few weeks later on April 9 that doctors discovered that the baby boy’s right eye had not fully formed, leaving him completely blind.
“It was a complete shock, because we still had the hopes that maybe he would be able to see with the right eye,” Martinez, 26, says. “Knowing that he’s going to be completely blind, it’s different. It’s a lot of learning. We’re trying to educate ourselves and just try to be on top of everything so, even though he’s so young now, he can be the best he can be later on in life.”
Two main developmental conditions attributed to Jackson’s blindness: anophthalmia and microphthalmia. Anophthalmia is the absence of one or both eyes at birth, according to the National Eye Institute, and microphthalmia is when one or both eyes are abnormally small, which is what occurred with Jackson’s right eye.
According to the National Eye Institute, there is currently no treatment that will help restore vision or create a new eye for severe cases of both disorders. There are, however, procedures that will help with a patient’s appearance, the National Eye Institute said, such as prosthetics or plastic conformers to help promote eye socket growth.
For newborns, prosthetics may be left black-colored since they are changed every few weeks as the baby grows. When the child turns 2, the prosthetics can be painted to match a traditional eye since they’ll be left in longer, according to the National Eye Institute.
While Jackson will likely never know what he looks like, Martinez says she will try to help her son maintain somewhat regular routines.
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“I just really want to help him to be as normal as possible,” she explains. “You don’t ever want your kid to be the one that every parent or child is staring at.”
Martinez — who is preparing to leave her job to care for her son full-time — says they will weigh Jackson’s treatment options as he grows.
“We don’t even really know if he has an eye socket on the left to be able to hold a conformer,” she says. “It’s just waiting to see how the skull develops and if it’s an option for him.”
According to the CDC, one in every 5,300 babies born in the United States will have either anophthalmia or microphthalmia. The cause of anophthalmia and microphthalmia may be traced back to genetic mutations or abnormal chromosomes, and exposure to x-rays and other chemicals may also have some effect, though evidence for this is inconclusive, the National Eye Institute said.
Since Jackson’s birth, Martinez and her fiancé have received guidance from families in support groups for the blind, and from the New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. In the coming weeks, the school will be teaching Martinez and the family braille so they can help Jackson as he gets older.
Martinez says she now feels a part of a community she never knew existed, which is filled with people who are ready to help them prepare Jackson in every way possible to succeed — and be happy — in life.
“Before this had happened, I never really thought that babies could be born without eyes,” she says. “You know some people are blind, but you don’t understand the story of how they became blind. Now we’re a part of a whole different community that has always been there. It’s nice knowing there’s such a community there willing to support us.”