Photographs from Nelson’s younger days displayed a strong, athletic man who prided himself in being a Marine and later a police sergeant in Norfolk, Va. During the last three years of his six-year enlistment with the United State Marine Corps, he was stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
It wasn’t until after Nelson, a 1979 Elyria High School graduate, left the Marines that his health started to decline.
At age 27, when he should have been in the prime of his life, the skin on his fingers and palms slowly began changing from brown to white. Nelson was later diagnosed with vitiligo — a form of skin depigmentation. Vitiligo has also affected his fingers and feet.
Wearing a USMC ball cap, Nelson, now 53, sat on the couch inside his Keys Drive home, quietly talking about his life and the barrage of health problems that began with the skin disease and progressively worsened.
“I was so embarrassed,” Nelson said of the vitiligo, which eventually left the palms of his hands white. “I didn’t know what was going on, and it was very difficult because as a police officer, I was in the public eye. I was an officer for 20 years.”
Later, he was diagnosed with diabetes.
Through it all, Nelson couldn’t shake the feeling that his health was deteriorating because of the three years at Camp Lejeune. There, he stayed on base, eating the meals and drinking the water that was prepared from the base’s eight water processing stations until his departure in 1985.
According to www.savethewater.org, Camp Lejeune has been under scrutiny for the past six decades for using contaminated water. As early as 1953, volatile organic compounds exceeded maximum containment levels. Yet people, including Nelson, continued to bathe and drink the water decades later.
Health officials believe as many as a million people may have been exposed to the toxic water. Marines became aware of this contamination in the early 1980s but didn’t close the drinking wells until later in the decade.
In August 2012, President Barack Obama signed the Janey Ensminger Act, which provides medical care for Navy and Marine veterans and their family members who have been affected by the contamination at Camp Lejeune.
Over the years, Nelson has kept in touch with a few of his comrades and learned a fellow Marine has also developed vitiligo. While the two incidences may be coincidental, Nelson is living proof that damage to a person’s body may take decades to show itself, and after a routine doctor visit in August 2010, Nelson learned he was in a fight for his life — doctor said he had renal toxicity.
“I had blood work done and they told me to see a specialist, and that I needed to start dialysis as soon as possible,” Nelson said. “I got a few more second opinions, but they all agreed.”
It was a shock to Nelson, since there is no family history of the disease. He is also the only one in his family to have vitiligo.
Knowing his time may have been limited, Nelson immediately went on the organ transplant list.
By the time of the renal toxicity diagnosis, Nelson learned his kidneys were functioning at 5 percent. In order to keep them functioning, Nelson undergoes dialysis three days a week for four hours.
But soon the days of him being hooked up to a machine will be long gone.
On Tuesday, Nelson’s younger sister, Helen Noel will give one of her kidneys to her brother at University Hospitals of Cleveland.
“She was tested two months ago,” Nelson said, explaining that it takes time to test each sibling to ensure the two are compatible. “She saw her husband’s dad on dialysis and she saw firsthand what he was going through.”
Nelson will spend five to seven days in the hospital and then recuperate at home.
“They told me I will be off my feet for about a month,” Nelson said.
But he knows that the faster he recovers, the quicker will get back to doing the activities he loves — hunting, fishing and simply being outdoors.
“I am an outdoors guy. I love to be at the piers,” he said smiling. “I am going to really enjoy life.”
And last week, Nelson heard some of the best news of his life — he will be a grandfather for the first time.
“My daughter called me (a few nights ago) and told me she is expecting,” he said with a smile.