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Monday, October 27, 2014

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Needs and Deeds: First Oklahoma VisionWalk to help fund research

By Sarah Lobban, Staff Writer

Dr. Steven D. Schwartz stands in his office alongside Snellen eye chart for testing vision.
David Mercer and Treva will participate in this year’s Oklahoma Vision Walk on Saturday.
PHOTO: SARAH LOBBAN, THE OKLAHOMAN

For the past 20 years, David Mercer has been actively involved in nonprofit work in Oklahoma. He has worked with multiple charities, but one cause is nearest to his heart: fighting blindness and the diseases that cause it.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 3 million Americans over age 40 are legally blind or have low vision. Severe vision impairment is less common among children, but it can have a big impact on the lives of those it affects.

Mercer has lived with retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that slowly eats away at his vision, for many years. He began to notice symptoms as a young teen but was not diagnosed until college.

Mercer said he always assumed his vision was normal and that everyone had limited peripheral and no night vision.

“In high school, I played quarterback on my football team,” he said. “My coach would get onto me … because I’d stand back to throw the ball and these two defensive linemen would come in and hit me from either side. I never saw them coming.”

His poor vision resulted in more than one concussion, something Mercer laughs about now. The same goes for his time as a newspaper delivery boy, when he would repeatedly fall over shrubs and bump into trees in the dark. “It was kind of funny, really,” he said.

After high school, Mercer attended Princeton University. There he took a job as a reader for a man who had lost his vision due to retinitis pigmentosa. That man was Gordon Gund, a prominent businessman who co-founded the Foundation Fighting Blindness and became an inspiration to Mercer.

Mercer is no longer able to read as he once could. He can’t see more than a few inches in front of him and relies on a guide dog, Treva, to get around, especially in the dark. But he considers himself lucky.

“I have one friend from Massachusetts who was born completely blind,” Mercer said. “She will never see a thing in her life, and that upsets me.”

Walking for vision

Mercer’s desire to help others avoid the struggles of vision loss inspired him to assist nonprofits dedicated to funding degenerative eye research. He was always looking for ways to spread awareness of the diseases as well.

Last year, Mercer attended one of the Foundation Fighting Blindness conferences, where he learned of the VisionWalk program.

More than 50 locations across the United States hold an annual 5k to raise awareness for degenerative eye disease. Since the start, the walks have raised $42 million to fund research on degenerative eye disease.

Mercer liked the idea.

“Oklahomans are as generous as you can find,” said Mercer, who is from Ohio but has lived in Oklahoma more than 30 years. “That’s why I like it here. But there wasn’t an organization that had been formed here to do (a walk), and last year, I decided that would be my mission.”

The inaugural Oklahoma VisionWalk will be Saturday at the Stars and Stripes Park at Lake Hefner, 3701 Lake Hefner Drive. The event starts at 10 a.m. There is no entry fee, although walkers are encouraged to register in advance. Anyone who raises more than $100 will receive a T-shirt.

Brittney Bannon is the Foundation Fighting Blindness events manager for the southeastern region. She helps organize and run the region’s VisionWalks.

“It’s a carnival or tailgate atmosphere,” she said. “We’ll usually have a bounce house and games for children. We provide breakfast, snacks and lunch.”

Mercer, who has never let lack of vision slow him down, plans to attend, with Treva in tow.

He realizes a prevention or cure for degenerative eye diseases may not come in time for him or his generation. But he hopes organizations like the Foundation Fighting Blindness will make a difference to future generations.

“We need to do everything we can to find treatments and cures for serious vision diseases,” he said. “I’m proud of what we’ve done so far.”