At 38, it looks as if Nelson Dent has it all.
A successful career.
A loving wife.
A delightful, 4-year-old son.
Ask him, and he'll tell you he's been blessed.
He'll talk about how he has the perfect job. He'll tell you how much he loves his wife. And, when he talks about his little boy, Mason, he'll smile like he's won the Powerball.
If you didn't know Nelson, you'd think his life was perfect.
Well, it's not.
Because, at 38, Nelson Dent -- talented librarian, loving husband, and proud father -- has a serious problem.
A problem that is quickly changing his whole world.
Nelson Dent is going blind.
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A little more than a decade ago, Nelson was active, sailing, playing ball and living the type of life a single, 26-year-old male enjoyed.
"I was doing everything," he said. "Heck I even hiked a good portion of the Appalachian Trail. I was very active and always going."
But things began to change.
He noticed it was difficult to see at night.
And, later, it caused problems with his first love -- theater.
With a master's in theater, Nelson was a mainstay at many productions. But his rapidly deteriorating eyesight began to make that work impossible.
"I'd have these great monologues that I wouldn't get to deliver because I'd miss my cue," he said. "In the dim light backstage, well, it became almost impossible for me to see."
His family sought medical advice.
"My dad took me to Johns Hopkins," he said. "And they sat us down and told us just what was happening. That was the only time in my life that I saw my dad cry."
The doctors told him his eyesight would get worse.
They told him he would eventually go blind.
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It's called Macular Degeneration.
A medical condition usually found in older adults, Macular Degeneration causes the center of the inner lining of the eye -- the macula area -- to thin, atrophy and sometimes, bleed. The result is a loss of central vision; the inability to see fine details, to read, or recognize faces.
But it wasn't Nelson's only problem.
A second condition, Retinitis Pigmentosa, was causing his night vision problems. A product of genetics, Retinitis Pigmentosa usually precedes tunnel vision. And while many people live with the problem for years, most, by their 40s or 50s, go legally blind.
A few retain some limited vision.
Nelson isn't among the few.
With only 7 percent vision, Nelson, today, is considered legally blind. He gave up his driver's license years ago. Today his vision is confined to a small, circular area.
"I can't see a person's whole face," he says. "Right now, I can see eyes, nose, but no mouth. The rest is just a void. The void isn't surrounded by black, just nothing. There's nothing there. It's like looking through the end of a paper towel tube."
And the tube keeps getting smaller.
n n n
It's a well known fact that professional librarians like to read.
The job has its perks: Being surrounded by books all day long; having access to the latest biography or novel, pages upon pages for the asking.
For someone who grooves on the printed word, being a librarian is rewarding, indeed.
Consider Nelson Dent a reader.
We're talking a serious, serious reader of books; say, several books per week. Hundreds of books per year. A guy who reads like he knew they weren't going to make any more books.
Or like he knew one day he wouldn't be able to see.
"There are so many books out there that I want to read," he says. "There are tons. I read all the time. I don't know what I could do if I couldn't read."
His statement hangs still, like a wraith in the air.
Sitting in the Norman Public Library, surrounded by thousands of books, Dent knows that sometime in the future he won't see books as he once did.
He knows that at some point, for him, words won't exist on the printed page.
He knows there will be no more sunsets.
He knows that the face of his son, Mason, will fade, and he will enter a world without light.
He knows that someday he will be completely blind.
But Nelson Dent isn't there yet.
That day hasn't come.
Sure, he might use the white cane, but right now, he says, he's not going to worry about it until he's forced to.
"Yeah, I think about being blind," he says. "And I'm not sure how I'm going to handle it. I know what's going to happen. And I know things will be different. But right now they're not. Right now, I can still see, some. Right now I can still read and see my wife and watch my son play."
And for Nelson Dent, right now is the best part of his life.
n n n
Some people deal with difficulty by themselves.
Others need help.
Some people withdraw into themselves.
And others go public.
Nelson Dent has far too many friends to be alone. And he says his wife, LaVetta, "is incredible" and is always, "absolutely always" there for him, so withdrawing from life isn't an option.
Neither is going it alone.
So Nelson Dent is facing his blindness the only way he knows how, eye-to-eye.
"Things may change," he said. "But I am still me. And I'm not going to give this up. I love my job and my wife and family. I still have a lot to do."
Plus, there are his friends -- and his faith.
A member of St. Michael's Episcopal Church, Nelson said his faith has helped him cope with loss of vision and helped him face each day. His church, he says, has been there when he needed them most.
"Last year, my vision really changed. It got real bad for a while and it was really difficult for me," he says. "But faith and my church helped. God, they were amazing. If it hadn't been for them and my wife, I'm not sure what I would have done."
He also had help from the state's Department of Rehabilitative Services and the executive staff of the Pioneer Library System.
"DRS came in and trained me," he said. "They showed me new ways to do things. It really helped."
As an example, Nelson displays a small, black box -- about the size of a deck of cards. The box is actually a small, vibrating receiver he wears clipped to his belt like a cell phone. The receiver works in conjunction with several electronic mats placed on the floor in front of the library's information desk. When a customer steps on the mat, it sends a signal to the receiver and the receiver vibrates.
"That's how I know if someone is standing in front of me," he says. "I feel this thing go off and I know there's someone needing help."
Most of the time, the process works great.
"Once in a while, someone won't actually stand on the mat," he says. "And so the receiver doesn't vibrate. Then they are standing there, looking at me and I'm not saying anything because I can't really see them. So they think I'm being rude. But, honestly, I'm not."
On those occasions, other staff will get Nelson's attention and, quickly, he'll move into librarian mode.
"Most people understand and there are a few kinks," he says. "But DRS and the people here at Pioneer have really been amazing. They've really supported me."
He's earned that support.
Personable, funny, charming and popular, Nelson "is one of the best we have," says Pioneer librarian Susan Gregory.
n n n
Most of us take our vision for granted.
We don't give a second thought to the fact that we can see colors, perceive depth or see the difference between light and dark.
Nelson Dent doesn't take anything for granted.
"It's amazing how free you are when you can see and hear well," he says. "You don't think about it. You don't realize the freedom in the simple act of watching your kid play."
Or reading a book.
Or driving down the street.
Because he no longer sees, Nelson does most of his traveling via Norman's public transportation system or as a passenger in the family car.
"LaVetta works in Oklahoma City so it takes her a while to get home," he says. "So it's up to me to pick up Mason from daycare and get back and forth to work."
The process is far from easy.
"When you only see a small area, it's really hard to buckle up a child's car seat. I do it. But there's a lot involved."
Because he is a frequent customer of the public transportation system, Nelson is also an advocate. And he has little patience for politicians who don't recognize the system's importance.
"Without public transportation, I wouldn't be able to get around," he says. "There's no way. So it really frustrates me when I see people play political games with public transit. They don't understand. They don't know what its like."
Plus he says, they can see.
"You don't realize how much freedom you have until you lose something like your vision. You don't know what it's like until you have to do without."
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These days, Nelson Dent takes nothing for granted.
These days, Nelson finds joy in his career, his life and with his family.
He loves a good beer, laughs loudly when the joke is funny, and takes time to watch the sunset.
He also reads all he can.
Because these days, even though he now sees life through the end of a tube, 38-year-old Nelson Dent really does have it all.
M. Scott Carter 366-3545 firstname.lastname@example.org
At 38, it looks as if Nelson Dent has it all.
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