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Meeting Myrtle

After driving truck for two decades, Richard Green called it quits and turned in his keys. He and his wife, Barb, both longtime Moorhead residents, set their sights on Las Vegas where Richard planned to spend more time golfing. Richard secured a ...

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After driving truck for two decades, Richard Green called it quits and turned in his keys.

He and his wife, Barb, both longtime Moorhead residents, set their sights on Las Vegas where Richard planned to spend more time golfing.

Richard secured a full-time job at a print shop and was happily exploring new greens and fairways.

But the couple's adventure took an unexpected turn when Richard noticed something wasn't right with his eyesight.

Work tasks like using a cutting machine or matching posters with order slips were becoming difficult.

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Granted, Richard's vision wasn't perfect. He'd recently switched from bifocals to trifocals. A past surgery on his right eye had caused some vision loss, but didn't affect his ability to drive.

Now, Richard was relying on co-workers to punch his timecard at the beginning and end of every shift.

A local optometrist diagnosed the 44-year-old with macular degeneration. The condition is most commonly found in elderly adults and affects central vision.

On Feb. 24, 1997, Richard's sight in his left eye measured 20/200, giving him the designation of legally blind. Sight in his right eye was slightly better.

In the span of a few weeks, Richard's life and the lives of those around him changed dramatically. Never again would he drive himself to the driving range, read his own mail or look up a telephone number in the directory.

Without extended family and a support network, life in Las Vegas paired with Richard's vision impairment proved overwhelming.

The Greens returned to Moorhead in May - less than nine months after their departure.

For Richard, the years ahead would prove challenging as he learned acceptance and patience, and faced the greatest loss of his life.

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Finding Willow

Determined to rebuild his life, Richard sought information and opportunity.

He met separately with two Fargo eye experts: Dr. Max Johnson, an ophthalmologist, and Dr. Gary Renier, an optometrist who primarily works with individuals who have low vision.

Richard learned he has a rare genetic disease called pseudoxanthoma elasticum, or PXE. It's an unpredictable disease that affects the body's connective tissues by creating mineral deposits in the skin, eyes and gastrointestinal and cardiovascular systems, according to PXE International, a Washington, D.C.,-based advocacy organization.

In Richard's case, the disease - so far - has manifested in the form of severe macular degeneration and primarily has affected his eyesight. He lacks central vision, depth perception and the ability to see detail. He has retained some peripheral, or side, vision.

To date, Richard is the only member of his family diagnosed with or showing symptoms of PXE.

He worked with Renier, the optometrist, to learn how to maximize and monitor his remaining vision.

"A lot of (people) would sit back in the corner and feel sorry for themselves," said Renier. "Not Richard. He's the other way around."

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Richard learned to use a cane, read Braille and other key skills at the North Dakota Vision Services/School for the Blind in Grand Forks.

Most importantly, he discovered Guide Dogs for the Blind, an accredited school that matches individuals who have impaired sight or blindness with meticulously trained dogs. Through the nonprofit organization, Richard met Willow, a 20-month-old yellow Labrador who radiated with personality and loved sniffing flowers.

Richard credits Willow with restoring his confidence, self-esteem and so much more.

"The guide dog gives you the desire to be part of society," he said. "They heal your soul."

Richard resumed golfing at Moorhead's Village Green Golf Course, his home course.

"I'm a better golfer now than when I could see," said Richard, who shot a 44 on a recent 9-hole outing and maintains a handicap of 18. "I don't try to do stupid stuff."

He also knows the course so well he pictures it in his mind while playing. He relies on fellow golfers to direct him to his ball and keep him orientated.

Willow doesn't enjoy Richard's golf game so she usually stays home.

However, she was at his side when he returned to the work force. He tried several new vocations, but it was a position at Eventide's Kaffe Hus in south Moorhead that fit.

Richard enjoyed operating the coffee shop's cash register and playfully bantering with customers and staff members.

At the same time, Willow quickly worked her way into the hearts of everyone at Eventide, a senior living community. She easily became the coffee shop's most popular worker and could usually be found on the bare floor next to the counter with her pink nose sticking out.

Then again, Willow accompanied Richard everywhere - except the golf course. The pair ventured to various appointments and ran errands. They were regulars at several Moorhead stores. Shopping was Willow's favorite pastime.

Year after year, Willow kept Richard safe and served as his eyes when he needed them most.

Loss of a Lifetime

Like so many other Sunday mornings, Willow was rambunctious and eager to start the day.

"She was trying to drag my wife out of bed so she could have her toast," Richard recalled.

Richard and Willow headed to work.

With Richard behind the cash register, Willow assumed her usual spot.

Chaplain Stephen Streed was among Richard's customers later that morning. Streed and Willow adored each other and the chaplain normally "brought out the worst in her."

"Chaplain Streed came in and she didn't move," recalled Richard. "Willow just didn't move.

"I called my wife and told her we need to take Willow to the vet."

By the time Barb arrived, Richard was waiting outside with Willow.

The dog greeted Barb with a wag of her tail, but couldn't get into the van on her own.

A veterinarian told the Greens a mass in Willow's stomach was causing internal bleeding. It also appeared her spleen had ruptured.

"They were trying to do surgery on her, but they couldn't keep her alive," Barb recalled. "Her heart kept stopping."

By 5 p.m. on Nov. 11, Richard's beloved Willow - his lifeline for nine years - was gone. She was 11 years old.

Meeting Myrtle

Willow's death devastated Richard and Barb.

The couple lovingly wrote an obituary acknowledging Willow's contributions to their lives. It appeared as an advertisement in The Forum on Nov. 15.

Streed presided over a service in Willow's memory. More than 100 people attended the event at Eventide's chapel.

The weeks passed.

While Barb continued to miss Willow, she soon reached her wit's end with her husband of 30-plus years.

"I said 'Richard, you need another dog,' " Barb recalled.

But Richard wouldn't consider another guide dog. He was consumed with grief.

Richard sought counseling and months later he began to entertain the idea of a second dog.

He again contacted Guide Dogs for the Blind, completed paperwork and got the required physical.

In May, Richard traveled alone to Oregon, where he met Myrtle, a 57-pound yellow Labrador. Three weeks of intensive training followed their May 10 meeting.

When Richard and Myrtle stepped off the plane at Fargo's Hector International Airport, Richard told Barb: "I'm whole again."

Richard is enamored with Myrtle, 2, who loves to play Frisbee, destroy Kong toys and cuddle.

The pair are inseparable and it turns out Myrtle shares Richard's favorite pastime.

A typical week includes four or more outings to the Village Green Golf Course, which is not far from the Greens' home. But Myrtle still has a few things to learn about the game, such as not retrieving the ball on its way into the cup.

During a recent outing, Richard carefully filled Myrtle's water dish before heading to the tee box, telling her: "You drink some water. Dad's got to go find a fairway."

While Richard can still find his share of fairways, he doesn't know what his future holds. It's possible his impaired vision will remain stable, as it has for more than a decade.

Or, it's possible PXE - the unpredictable disease that it is - holds other surprises.

Regardless, Richard knows Myrtle will be by his side.

Readers can reach Forum visual reporter Ann Arbor Miller at (701) 451-5749

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