Southampton Merchant Navy officer who went blind overnight 'thought his life was over'

  • Watch: Meridian In Conversation with Tom McInulty in Southampton

Words by ITV News producer Grace Williams

Tom McInulty lost his sight overnight aged 31, while he was working abroad in November 1983, due to cyanide poisoning.

He worked in the Merchant Navy from the age of 16 and moved to Southampton from his home in Clydebank, near Glasgow.

For Tom, becoming visually impaired was a shock and as he admits, it was a struggle to adapt to a new way of life. But, Tom has used his experience to become a positive role model and is well known for his fundraising and charity work in the South East.

Now 69, he is also keen to show that life doesn't have to slow down the older you get. Tom and his partner Paul, who met in 2012, are due to get married on the Queen's Platinum Jubilee weekend.

Tom and his partner Paul are due to get married on the Queen's Platinum Jubilee weekend. Credit: ITV Meridian

Tom, losing your sight overnight is a scenario that no one expects to experience. How did it happen?

I was in the Merchant Navy and I worked on cruise ships and had a very carefree life travelling around the world. I worked hard but I played hard and had a lovely lifestyle. All of a sudden I went to shore in Trinidad to celebrate my 31st birthday and then the next day I just woke up and couldn't see anymore. It was as sudden as that.

They got me off the island straight away and brought me back to Southampton and they diagnosed it was cyanide poisoning. They said there was nothing they could do. I was just stunned. You just don't think anything like that's going to happen to you, you don't even think about things like that. It was just awful. My family and friends were very supportive but I just really struggled with it at the very beginning.

Do the doctors know what caused the cyanide poisoning?

There is cyanide in lots of different things, like some foods and tobacco and some alcohol. They never identified exactly where it came from but I just had a reaction to it, so sadly it affected my optic nerve. They said when the optic nerve is damaged, there's nothing they can do.

The only person funnily enough who dealt with it was a professor in Glasgow. My sister and I went back up there and he had a look and said: "The damage is done and we can't do anymore for you and you're going to be blind for the rest of your life". I'll never forget those words.

At that time you just think your life is over. I sat in the front room of my house and I couldn't even get out. I could hardly find the door in the front room, let alone what was outside. I was just terrified to go out. I lost my confidence and I lost my nerve.

Gradually, I rebuilt my life and I found myself. I'm much happier and I like the person I am again, but for a little while I didn't want to be around and there was times when I thought: "Do I really want to be in this world?" Gosh, I would have hated to have missed the last 30 years because it's been fantastic.

How did you adapt to being visually impaired?

I adapted in the early days with the help of social services. Anita came around and she taught me braille. I tried to learn but I was flattening the dots because I was angry at what was going on because I was still grieving for my sight. So, she said "Ok, we'll leave it for now but when you're ready, I'll be waiting for you." Later on when I was ready, that was it, she came back round with the braille and couldn't do enough for me. So, it's just knowing when you're ready because you need to go through that grieving point and it's like any loss in our life, we have to work through it. We're all different, we all take our own time and thanks to Beryl and Anita, I came back.

You mentioned you were able to meet other people who were visually impaired. How important was that to have people who understood what you were going through?

I first met other visually impaired people when I went off on a camping holiday in Farnborough. That was a big turning point because I felt I could ask them questions I couldn't ask other people. I said: "Well I still blink. In the movies they always have visually impaired people just staring." Most visually impaired people don't look visually impaired. I could ask these other people all these questions that I couldn't have asked somebody who was fully-sighted because I don't think they would understand.

You were 31-years-old when you lost your sight and you were travelling and having such an amazing time and that contrast must have been very difficult for you?

Well, it was. One minute I'm flying and sailing around the world, having a really good time and I've got lots of good friends and then all of a sudden, I was just stuck in the front room. Not knowing how I was going to pay the mortgage or anything like that, it was just an awful contrast and it was just hard to get my head around it at the beginning.

I struggled with it and I went off the rails a little bit. I drank too much just to find an escape because I didn't like reality and my life anymore. That wasn't really helping me though, so I decided to get some help with that and I knocked the drink on the head and then I gradually started rebuilding my life.

I went to Loughborough for two years, as there's an RNIB college up there. The first year I went up there I was still using my long white cane, so I used to travel through London and I'd really built my confidence.

In between the two years, I got my first guide dog and that was just amazing and all the bicycles in Loughborough disappeared because when I got my dog, he would just zap me around everything. I remember walking down the road and the snow was quite deep and I had my dog and I just got quite emotional. I thought: "I'm alive again, I can do everything I did before because this lovely dog is taking me around".

Tom sat with his fourth guide dog, Toby, in Southampton Credit: ITV Meridian

Tom, tell me about the guide dogs you've had over the years and your relationship with them.

The dogs have given me a lot of confidence. I've been using dogs for 32 years now and they've all been so different.

Otis was very serious and followed me everywhere and when I got him in 1990, I was very serious as well because I was rebuilding my life and I was studying a lot. Otis retired at 11.

Then I got Lloyd, my second guide dog and he was a bit more laid back and I became a little bit more laid back with my life as well. Then he retired at 10-and-a-half. Then, I got Brunel and he was a cheeky one and I started to get a little cheeky.

Now, we have Toby and he is just so lovable. We just don't want drama anymore, we just want peace and quiet.

What is the biggest challenge facing visually impaired people?

I think the biggest problem visually impaired people have is people realising what they've got to offer. I don't think employers see that. If I ever had another job to do, it would be to go to employers and explain to them just how beneficial it would be to have a visually impaired person working for them.

I did a work placement at Open Sight and I was the very first visually impaired person ever to be employed there in 70 years and they're now celebrating their centenary this year. I was very honoured to be the first one. Since then, they have three visually impaired people working for Open Sight doing different roles.

I also did holidays for visually impaired children, some of whom are in mainstream school and aren't really aware of what they can do. I used to take them away on holiday canoeing, tenpin bowling and ice skating. Then they'd go home and say to family and friends: "Yes, I can do that but maybe slightly differently". They used to come back the year later and go wizzing past you on the ice.

Tom, can you tell me a little bit about your fundraising and your charity work?

I climbed Sydney Harbour Bridge for Southampton Sight to raise funds. That was an experience and sometimes an advantage not being able to see when you're really high up! I've done the London Marathon twice, it was 25 years this year when I did the second one and we did it in four hours with a sighted guide who ran all the way round with me. We trained together and that was fantastic.

Over the years, I've met some incredible volunteers in their 80s and 90s. There was one lady, Betty and it was her 90th birthday. I asked her if she was enjoying it and she told me the one thing she'd love to do was to abseil off Spinnaker Tower. I agreed to do it with her but didn't think anymore of it.

Then a couple of weeks later, I went into the office and somebody said, "Betty's been on the phone, she's got the go ahead from her GP and can you arrange for her to abseil off Spinnaker Tower?" Before I knew it, I was on top of Spinnaker Tower with this 90-year-old lady. Between the two of us, we raised £4,200.

Tell me about your experience of carrying the Olympic Torch for the 2012 Paralympic Games. How did it come about?

It was just amazing. My dogs are trained to walk up the centre of the pavement, so I didn't know how Brunel was going to cope walking up the middle of the road. I didn't need to worry about that though, as he just wagged his tail for Britain.

It was one of the proudest moments of my life, to carry the torch in one hand and have my dog in the other hand. I was so proud to be British that day and I just felt I'd come a long way and it was just thanks again to these dogs.

When you have these amazing experiences and you reflect on how far you've come, how do you feel?

When I look back, I sometimes can't believe the second life I'm living at the moment and the privilege I've had. When I thought one door was closed, I didn't realise another beautiful door was going to open into a life I never expected. I wouldn't change it for anything because I've met so many inspirational people who're making the best of what they've got in life.

As some people said: "you're only here once and you've got to make the best of it". It's true. At one time I didn't see that, but now I do, and I just love my life and the friends I've made over the years.

If you have been affected by the topics discussed here, the following organisations can provide support:


0303 123 9999

Southampton Sight

023 8076 9882

Open Sight

023 8064 1244

Macular Society

0300 3030 111


116 123 (freephone)