As he began losing his eyesight, Ernie Calixte experienced a domino effect.
He lost his job.
His wife left him.
He was stripped of his privacy.
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He lost many of the things that mattered to him most.
But he never lost his faith or his spirit, and those two things have kept Calixte plugging along in life, even as retinitis pigmentosa slowly has robbed him of his ability to see.
“When you get RP, you have to learn to live with it,” said Calixte, 62, of Pembroke Pines. “The vision is deteriorating progressively until you become totally blind.”
Calixte, who was born in Haiti, refused to let the inherited eye disease destroy him. Though he was diagnosed as legally blind in 1995, he loves to read, especially the Bible. Reading gives him strength, he says.
His wish is for software that can enlarge small type and convert it into inch-tall letters. The software also vocalizes documents, but the cost is beyond his means.
“If I don't have the machine, I cannot read,” said Calixte, a sturdy man with a rich bass voice to match.
“People mistake me for Barry White sometimes,” he said, showing a flash of humor at being compared to the legendary soul singer.
The Division of Blind Services, Lighthouse of Broward nominated Calixte for Wish Book because “in spite of his vision impairment, he volunteered his services to train and assist other visually impaired persons,’’ said Michelle Levy, of the blind services agency in her nominating letter. “He has been an encouraging example for others who become blind, letting them know that life does not end when you’re faced with such a tremendous obstacle.”
The software that Calixte needs has the capacity to read and vocalize documents, Levy said in her statement.
Calixte moved to the U.S. when he was younger, received a degree in computer science, and went to work at the City University of New York as a programmer and data processor.
His vision began to leave him when he reached his mid-30s. Doctors first prescribed corrective lenses, but the problem continued to worsen. Eventually he was diagnosed with RP.
Calixte tried to convince himself that he would defeat the disease through sheer willpower.
“I was preparing myself for the worst,” he said, “but I knew the worst would never happen. Unfortunately, it’s getting there.”
He was forced to quit his job and go on disability “because my field requires a lot of reading. I was unable to perform my duties.”
His condition continued to deteriorate after moving to South Florida. Eventually, he had to stop driving. The father of four said his inability to function normally led his wife to leave him.
“My wife could not deal with it,” he said. “She told me. It's painful.”
Living alone created a new set of problems. He had to find someone to not only help him with simple errands, like going to the grocery store or to the bank, but also to read his mail and bank statements.
“That's been the most difficult part,” he said. “That takes away my privacy. Every aspect of of my life is difficult. You don't have a companion, so that hurts.”
Through it all, Calixte tried to remain upbeat.
After learning how to cope and adapt to his new life as a visually impaired person through lessons he received at the Lighthouse of Broward, he decided to help others who shared the same disease.
He started providing training in computer programming and data processing.
“I had spent years preparing myself for the worst, so I felt like I was in the proper environment to know how to deal with the situation,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘Why don't I try to help others?’ ”