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Denis’ battle for sight

Denis Paraskevatos and one of his ships.

Denis Paraskevatos and one of his remarkable ships.

A childhood fascination with an ancient sea battle launched Denis Paraskevatos’ journey to a career as a naval engineer and world-renowned master craftsman of replica ships.

As a schoolboy in Athens, the now 80-year-old learned about the Battle of Salamis – a conflict in 480 BC which saw a fleet of Greek oarsmen heroically defeat a much larger force of invading Persians.

“I was only 12-years old and I could not believe that the Greeks were able to win with only half the ships,’’ he says. “It became a flame for me to read many histories and philosophers from Ancient Greece.’’

But more than 60 years later, the Salamis is not the only battle that consumes Denis as he painstakingly creates his 33rd replica ship at his kitchen bench in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. The grandfather of two is also fighting age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

AMD affects one in seven people over 50 and is the leading cause of legal blindness and severe vision loss in Australia.

It affects central vision, which is needed to see detailed objects clearly and perform everyday tasks such as reading and driving.

A voyage with age-related macular degeneration

In 2002 Denis first noticed the impact of the disease on his vision when once straight lines began to blur and warp.

After losing the vision in his right eye from the disease 17 years ago, he relied heavily on his left eye and a magnifying glass to undertake his intricate craft.

Despite his declining vision, his museum-quality ships attracted acclaim in Australia and internationally. His ships have been displayed in the Parliament of Victoria, Melbourne Town Hall and La Trobe University, and one of his prized Triremes takes permanent pride of place in the Greek Embassy in Canberra. In 2002, he was awarded the Commonwealth Centenary Medal for services to the arts and community.

Every ship takes Denis around 18 months to complete, starting with extensive historical research, mathematical calculations and drawings. He then hand-carves, glues and nails together the thousands of pieces that make up a vessel before threading, knotting and weaving many metres of string rigging around the masts.

He individually creates the ships’ oarsmen, casting molten polyurethane into the moulds he designs, including separate movable arms which he attaches to each character with tiny nails.

His current project, a 9000-piece ancient Penteris with 320 oarsmen over five levels, is his most ambitious yet.

But it would not be possible without the regular injections which are preserving the sight in his left eye, which suffered a vision-threatening bleed as a result of his ‘wet’ AMD.

Healthy vision and healthy ageing

Professor Robyn Guymer and Denis Paraskevatos

Professor Robyn Guymer and Denis Paraskevatos

The treatment that is keeping Denis’ sight intact is now routinely used on patients with ‘wet’ AMD – and is the result of many years of clinical research.  Professor Robyn Guymer and colleagues at the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA) were involved in the initial pivotal trials conducted around the world to prove the first drugs were beneficial.

Professor Guymer says that since these original studies, the treatment protocols have been refined to better individualise treatments. This included an Australian study which she led, to look at potentially being able to give less injections and achieve the same vision outcomes.

Professor Guymer was a special guest at a recent exhibition of Denis’ ships at Macleod College, along with other VIPs including Health Minister Jenny Mikakos and Energy, Environment and Climate Change Minister Lily D’Ambrosio.

In his welcome speech, Denis paid tribute to Professor Guymer’s expertise and care.

Professor Guymer says she was honoured to be invited to the exhibition.

“Denis’ determination to keep building beautiful ships and improving the understanding of Greek history and culture is inspiring,’’ she says.

“His achievements also highlight the critical role healthy vision plays in helping older people continue the activities they love, stay connected to the community and at home with their families.’’

The importance of macular research

Professor Guymer and her team at CERA are continuing research to find better treatments and hopefully one day a cure for AMD.

Their work includes a new major international study which she will lead, examining the genetic and environmental causes of vision loss in people with the highest risk forms of the disease.

Denis says news of research gives him hope that in the future others will not be affected by the disease which has threatened his sight and independence.

“I will never forget what Professor Guymer has done for me,’’ he says.

“Not having vision curtails your activities and you can’t participate in the community in the way you desire.

“It takes away the colour of life, it prevents you from seeing a face – and a face tells you a lot about a person.’’


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