Classmates help Morehouse medical student distinguish colors for the first time

Yaw Owusu recently received the best birthday gift ever — the ability to see in full color.

Owusu, a second-year student at Morehouse School of Medicine, has a protan-type color vision deficiency, which leads to a form of colorblindness. It causes colors like red, green, brown and orange to appear indistinguishable. There are also times when he confuses blue and purple.

This fall, though, his classmates secretly raised $350 to buy Owusu a pair of Enchroma glasses, which enhance color perception for people who are color blind.

They gave him his gift a few days before his 25th birthday.

Related: This is how colorblind people see the world

One of the first things Owusu did was to go outside to look at the flowers and leaves.

“This is what people see when they say ‘it’s red, it’s green,’” said Owusu, a native of Accra, Ghana, who moved to the United States in 2009. “My appreciation for nature began to have more meaning.”

The glasses have also helped him in class “because I am able to use color to identify and appreciate the differences in cells and organelles on histology slides in my pathology course.”

RELATED: A way for colorblind people to see what they’ve been missing

The effort was initiated by classmate Claud Crosby. 

The two, who are both scheduled to graduate in 2020, became fast friends at the Atlanta medical school over a shared love of medicine and Africa.

Crosby, a Virginia native, had spent several years as a missionary in Swaziland, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In classes where students must know the minute differences in cells and tissue, Crosby noticed that his friend tried to make distinctions based on shape and size.

“We use color to differentiate almost everything,” Crosby said. “It was really remarkable to think he could tell the difference based on the shape and size. Shape and size can be similar, so a lot of times, color is how you tell the difference between two different cells.”

Dr. Janice Herbert-Carter, the course director for pathophysiology, said color vision is involved in much of the class and lab work a medical student might encounter, including microbiology.

“I’ve been teaching here for 27 years, and I’ve never encountered a student who did not see in color,” she said. There are times, for instance, when a student might have to identify bacteria under the microscope with staining characteristics. Some bacteria may show up purple or blue. Other bacteria may show up red. “If you can’t tell the difference in the color, then you can’t identify the bacteria.”

His family had long suspected there were issues with Owusu’s ability to see the world as others do.

When he was 11 or 12, his mother asked him to bring her a green bag.

He came back with a cream-colored one.

“That was the defining moment,” said Owusu. “She wasn’tmad or anything, but basically for someone getting ready for high school, you should know this. She realized then it was a problem.”

Owusu made allowances for his shortcoming.

If he wanted to buy a new outfit, he would buy everything — shoes, shirt, tie and suit — exactly as it was shown online, in a magazine or on a story display.

He really didn’t stress about it until he prepared for his freshman year at James Madison University in Virginia.

For one biology assignment, he had to trace the path of ants. To do so, he had to know which ones were red and which ones were green. He totally blew it.

Then it hit him that colorblindness could affect his studies.

Amazingly, the native of Ghana made it all the way to the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.

No one knew his secret. He went through labs judging cells by their shapes and other markers instead of color.

“I don’t know how he did it,” said Crosby, his classmate.

One night, Crosby and his wife, Mary, who is deaf, were watching YouTube videos about cochlear implants when videos about Enchroma glasses popped up. He thought the glasses could help his friend, but the cost was prohibitive, given the amount of debt students rack up in medical school.

He approached other students about the idea of raising money, and many wanted to help.

On the day they surprised Owusu, Crosby and others asked him to come to the front of the classroom. They handed him a wrapped gift. When he opened it and saw the glasses, he was stunned. Then Crosby put on a green T-shirt and showed him a printout of the national flag of Ghana. For decades, Owusu had recognized the flag based on where the five-pointed star was located. This time, he could distinguish the colors.

“I almost shed a tear,” he said.

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