Stand Up and Be Counted!
B rian Follett seems to be a very typical 20-year-old.
He likes winter sports, especially snowboarding. In the warm months he enjoys fishing and waterskiing. All during the year he works out at the River Bend Athletic Club three or four times a week. He's a big fan of the Red Sox and the New England Patriots. He enjoys going out with friends and he has a girlfriend.
Brian is typical in most ways except one-he is virtually blind.
He wasn't born that way. His blindness did not hit him until 1998 when he was in the sixth grade. That summer, he attended camp at URI's W. Alton Jones Campus in West Greenwich and then went to Loon Mountain, his favorite ski resort, with friends for a few days. When he got back to South Kingstown, he became violently ill with very severe headaches. He had two tell-tale red rings-one on his back and one on his leg. He never saw a tick.
He was put on doxycycline almost immediately, said his mother Karen. But the antibiotic did not lessen his illness which also consisted of vomiting anything he tried to get down, even medicine. He was in South County Hospital for two weeks. "They didn't know what was wrong," he says, even after all the tests. A spinal tap showed he had double the pressure than what was normal.
"One night I realized I could not see my dinner on a plate so well," he said. He was admitted at the Hasbro Children's Hospital and his vision became increasingly blurred. "At one point I must have had ten or fifteen doctors trying to determine what was wrong," he says.
He was transferred to New England Medical at Tufts in Boston for about three weeks. A team of doctors greeted him and conducted another spinal tap that revealed extremely high pressure on his brain. The spinal fluid could not drain and so it built up in his brain, crushing his optic nerve.
The doctors inserted a shunt and that brought the pressure down, stabilizing his vision somewhat. But the damage was done and today Brian can only make out shadows up to about 15 feet. If someone waves their hand, he can discern the motion. He can discern some colors but he is legally blind-caused by complications resulting from a tick bite.
"It was like hitting a brick wall. It all came very fast, like a storm," he recalled sitting at his kitchen table in his neat apartment at South County Commons where he lives with his seeing-eye dog, Imus.
In a few months his life changed dramatically. "He always had a positive attitude," his mother Karen said, and as soon as he was discharged from Tufts he wanted to go right back to school with his friends. Vision Services started him on a program to learn Braille. He learned that language in a year, Karen says. Brian says it takes most people two to three years to learn it.
He credits a lot of his success to Jack Doyle, a Braille teacher who helped him through high school and also Valerie Ross, a teacher's aide, who helped him to translate. He graduated on time from South Kingstown High School and entered Suffolk University in Boston. He found college life difficult and after finishing a year, declined to return. "He found college life was difficult in this vision-oriented world," says Karen.
When he returned from college he decided he wanted to remain living on his own and so he took the South County Commons apartment. The fact that he can walk to restaurants and other establishments in the Commons made it a good choice.
While his vision is virtually gone, his enthusiasm for sports never waned. As soon as he got out of the hospital, his parents (his father, Howard, is a commercial fisherman) brought him back to Loon Mountain ("They were excited to have me there.") and enrolled him in the Adaptive Snow Ski Sport Program.
"They had him on tethers at first," says his mother. But the quick study that Brian is resulted in his becoming a coach in the Adaptive School today. The school helps youngsters with disabilities. "I want to make a change in their lives so they don't have to stay at home," explains Brian.
When there's no snow on the ground, Brian loves to go sport fishing, either from the shore or from a boat. He also water skis with friends and even plays golf. ("They have to line me up on the tee. On the greens I often can see the shadow of the cup.")
The job at the Adaptive School is strictly volunteer work. His next quest is to find a paying job. In the past he has worked for his grandfather who has a paid parking lot in Galilee. Brian thinks he would like to get work in the fishing industry.
As he puts it, his loss of vision "Didn't stop me very much. I try to stay busy and still do all kinds of crazy stuff that people think I shouldn't. If I were allowed to drive, I would."
He credits his family, his friends and his girlfriend of two years with lots of assistance. As for the fateful encounter with a disease-bearing tick that caused his blindness, he says, "I'm glad that's all that came of it. I kind of put it behind me. You can't dwell on it and let it drag down your life."
Written By Rudi Hempe
- Bob Butler "My memory was so bad, my wife had me tested at Rhode Island Hospital for early Alzheimer's," he says. The testing was negative but he started wondering "was I just getting goofy or what?"
- Harvey C. Perry II He was so miserable he told his doctors he would not take any more medicines orally. "I said I didn't care if I died. I hit a wall."
- Buck Benoist "He always checked himself and wore white socks," in order to spot any ticks. "I checked him too," she adds. "He would go out in the yard and get tired from nothing,"
- Rudi Hempe "I stood there in the corridor holding my magnetic employee card and suddenly I didn't know where I was."
- Bill Thornton "I was so sick, I asked God to take me."
- Kate Moran Her knee swelled up, she had some memory problems, "I just wasn't myself."
- Brian Follett "One night I realized I could not see my dinner on a plate so well. It was like hitting a brick wall. It all came very fast, like a storm."