- Christine Ha was the first blind contestant to win “MasterChef.”
- Ha is speaking out about neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorder (NMOSD), the condition that caused her vision loss.
- As part of the NMOSD Won’t Stop Me campaign, Ha hopes to inspire others to share their stories.
Christine Ha grew up eating her mom’s home-cooked Vietnamese dishes. But as a child, she didn’t take interest in learning how to make her recipes. When her mom passed away from cancer when Ha was 14 years old, it seemed she might never taste her food again.
“But when I went off to college, I thought to myself, ‘I really miss mom’s comfort food and home cooking, so I’m going to teach myself [by] trying to reconstruct her dishes by memory,’” Ha told Healthline.
Through trial and error, she began to recreate what tasted like home, and in the process, she developed a love for cooking.
“There is something very satisfying about being able to cook something and share my dishes and feed other people and make them happy, and so that’s why I kept at cooking as a hobby,” said Ha.
During her junior year of college, in the depth of school work and honing her cooking skills, Ha started experiencing blurry vision in one eye.
After seeing an optometrist, she learned she had optic neuritis, which is inflammation of the optic nerve. To uncover the cause, she visited different doctors and underwent several tests, leading to a misdiagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS), which can cause optic nerve inflammation.
Eventually, Ha was correctly diagnosed with neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorder (NMOSD), a rare and chronic disorder of the brain and spinal cord that causes inflammation of the optic nerve and spinal cord.
Given that the symptoms of NMOSD resemble those of MS, Dr. Kristina Patterson, medical director of neuroimmunology at Horizon Therapeutics, said it can be difficult to distinguish between the two conditions.
“People with NMOSD are often misdiagnosed with MS, but it’s different from MS as relapses are more severe and can lead to irreversible damage and disability,” Patterson told Healthline.
Because NMOSD relapses can lead to permanent disability, she said an early and definitive diagnosis is crucial so treatment can begin.
“There are FDA-approved treatment options for people living with NMOSD, so we recommend people talk to their healthcare providers to find the right treatment and management for them,” said Patterson.
While Ha was told some treatments may or may not help to correct her vision loss, she ultimately lost all ability to see a few years after her diagnosis.
“For me, it was several years of a lot of challenges to learn to deal with the unknown,” said Ha.
In addition to vision loss, she experienced spinal cord inflammation that affected her motor and sensory skills. Other common symptoms of NMOSD include pain in the limbs or back, paralysis, limb weakness, motor disability, and respiratory issues.
While Ha processed her diagnosis, she leaned on family and friends, though it was difficult for them to truly understand what she was going through.
“Everyone had their own way of trying to help, but of course, for me it still felt very lonely,” she said.
After many years of grieving the loss of her vision, learning about her disease brought her peace.
“Equipping myself with knowledge really did help… educating myself so I knew best what was happening to me and being an educated patient and advocate for my own healthcare,” she said.
Turning to her culinary skills also brought her a sense of normalcy. As she gradually lost her vision, Ha had to teach herself how to navigate the kitchen with less and less sight.
“Each time I’d lose more vision, it felt like I was starting over and having to figure out how to use a knife again or how to navigate the hot stovetop over and over again,” she said.
Still, cooking allowed her to hold onto some independence.
“[Not] being able to drive, not being able to read my mail independently, things like that, it felt like if I could at least do one thing, which was cook something simple in the kitchen and feed myself or feed someone I cared about again, that made me feel like I reverted back to a life of normalcy,” said Ha.
She excelled at making savory foods. “You can taste it and know OK this needs seasoning or something acidic,” she said.
However, visual presentation remained a challenge. “People eat with their eyes first, so when a dish comes to the table, of course, you ooh and ahh if the presentation looks nice,” said Ha.
On the other hand, not having the distraction of how a dish looks allows her to focus on the taste of food — its flavor, whether it’s balanced, its textures, and its temperature.
“In some ways, I’ve learned to hone my other senses in the kitchen, and when I taste something I have more of a nuanced experience than many people with vision,” Ha said.
For instance, her sense of smell helps her determine if garlic in the pan is raw, perfectly cooked, or about to burn. “I often know something is on the verge of starting to burn before anyone else does,” she said.
Her sense of touch gets heightened in the kitchen, too, helping her determine things like whether or not she diced vegetables the same size.
As she mastered using her senses in the kitchen, Ha took her cooking skills to the next level when she became a contestant on the third season of “MasterChef” in 2012. She won first place by cooking her mom’s pork belly recipe on the finale.
“I have fond memories of that dish and I wanted to pay homage to my mom in the finale, so I cooked that dish, and to this day when I’m craving comfort food, I cook the same dish at home,” said Ha.
The dish is also served at one of the two Houston-based restaurants Ha owns. Since winning “MasterChef,” she also authored a cookbook and hosted a cooking show for the visually impaired.
“A lot of times when you’re in dark moments in your life, you tend to lose hope, and I feel like my story is one of hope and being able to overcome,” said Ha.
Ha teamed up with the campaign NMOSD Won’t Stop Me, which aims to bring together those living with NMOSD through storytelling. She’s leading the way by sharing her story to help others with the condition feel less alone.
She also hopes to inspire others to advocate for their health.
“[I] wish there was something like this when I was going through this a long time ago but… I couldn’t find any resources, I didn’t know anyone with this disease, and it felt very isolating and lonely,” said Ha.
She hopes the campaign helps others living with NMOSD feel like part of a community where they feel safe to find resources, learn about their disease, share their story, and talk about their failures and victories.
“[When] I was losing my vision or after I was diagnosed with NMOSD, just being able to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich after just having made a full Thanksgiving dinner maybe the year before, even if it seemed small, was still a victory to me,” she said. “[I] feel it’s important to hear stories of resilience and challenges of other people.”
People who join the community have the opportunity to win Ha’s cookbook, and those who share their stories have the chance to participate in a virtual cooking demo with her.
“[If] you look at my story, I’ve persevered. I’ve been determined to still be independent and to live my best life in spite of the hand I was dealt with, and that goes for anybody with any sort of challenge. It doesn’t matter if it’s vision loss or health-related, it could be any challenge you’re dealing with — another disease, or work stuff, or family life… it is a process,” she said.
Through the process of losing her vision and managing her condition, Ha said she learned the beauty of resilience.
“I wasn’t sure if I would make it through this as a person who could be happy again one day, but I did, and I’ve been able to achieve things in life that I never thought were possible, so I feel like if I can do it, then anyone can,” said Ha.