Adjusting My Career to Vision Loss

The day I graduated from the University of Arizona in 1983 with a nursing degree was a personal triumph. I looked forward to a career I dreamed of since childhood. I was certain I had found my life’s passion in nursing and my future was full of promise and excitement. Then at age 25, a vision exam turned everything upside down. The diagnosis was Retinitis Pigmentosa and my future became uncertain.

A long journey followed as I struggled to adjust to vision loss and redesign my life and career. In the early stages of visual changes, I continued working in a hospital. My husband and I started a family. I tried not to think about the future possibility of more vision loss. At age 30, with three children and a part-time job at the local hospital, I lost my driver’s license. This was the first of many losses which would change my life forever. Grief, depression, isolation, frustration and disappointment set in. My life and career were not shaping up as I imagined.

For the next ten years, my vision deteriorated slowly. I struggled to keep up at home and on the job. There were times when I doubted my abilities to be a good nurse and mother. My husband and I pulled together and found creative ways to get around obstacles. Always supportive, he affirmed me and encouraged me to continue to pursue working as a nurse. Eventually, I gave up working in the hospital setting when the pace, lighting, and technical duties limited my ability to function. It was difficult to let go and even more difficult to find the next job. There was much to consider: personal limitations, employers’ reactions and concerns, transportation problems, co-workers’ attitudes and more. Out of sheer determination, I landed jobs in a variety of settings from student health on a college campus to doctors’ offices. Sometimes it required hiding my visual impairment, which was very stressful. On one job, I was confronted with it and told I was “too great of a liability” and let go. Through many such experiences, I learned to defend my work, advocate for my rights, present my limitations to employers and co-workers, and find resources that enabled me to perform the essential duties of my job. At times I wanted to give up, but was always driven by my passion for nursing and the belief that there was still some job out there for me. After all, nursing is more than the ability to perform technical tasks. It is more often about understanding patient needs, giving care and comfort, exercising skilled judgment, and educating patients and their families. With low vision, I could still do these things. The challenge was always in finding the right job, presenting myself as a capable and conscientious practitioner, and working out the transportation conundrum.

In 1994, I was declared legally blind. Undaunted by this, I found a job as a school nurse when we relocated to Georgia. This environment proved to be ideal and I enjoyed years of support and collaboration with my principal, the staff, students and parents. But it was not easy…it was never easy. The role was challenging and the job required lots of paperwork. I was having problems with mobility and reading printed word by then. So I sought vision rehabilitation services. I received a low vision evaluation, assistive work technology training, orientation and mobility training, and daily skills training. This was again a redefining and redesigning of self. For now, the vision impairment was known to all. Though I have never “looked blind”, all the new accoutrements and trappings proved it was so.

Upon returning to school one year, I had three serious falls in the first two weeks of school. I was tripping on obstacles I did not see because they were in my blindspots. I sustained minor injuries such as bruises and a sprained wrist. However, falls were becoming a growing concern both to me and my employer. At that point I realized I needed to take the initiative to keep myself safe in the workplace. An orientation and mobility instructor trained me in the use of a white cane and fall prevention.Before I began using the cane “publicly”, I asked to speak to the staff about this change. I wanted to allay their concerns, assure them I could still do my job, and ease the transition for myself. So I spoke at a faculty meeting and explained the whys and hows of using a cane for personal safety.

Assessing a student at school

Assessing a student at school

By now, I was using many tools and devices for low vision. I wore thick magnifying glasses which the students called my “goo-goo goggles”. A large video magnifier helped me read. I used hand held magnifiers and special lights to assess skin rashes and other boo-boos. ZoomText enabled me to manage student files on the computer. Eventually, I introduced the school to my first guide dog, Sophie who quickly became a beloved school mascot. I adopted a straightforward way of explaining these tools and taught the school community what it means to be visually impaired. I developed a no-nonsense approach to problem-solving and self-advocacy in order to keep my job and do it well. I demonstrated that people with disabilities are capable of contributing in meaningful ways. I learned to be tenacious and resilient. And I was grateful for the opportunity to practice nursing.

Sophie and I at JC Booth Middle School

Sophie and I at JC Booth Middle School

After 11 years as a school nurse, I retired. I recently worked with a vision rehabilitation agency as an adjustment to blindness counselor and diabetic educator, another attempt to hone my professional skills. I started a support group in my hometown to assist the visually impaired community to find resources, support, and services. I enjoy teaching, speaking, and writing on topics such as diabetes and vision loss, health and nutrition, adjustment to blindness, depression, stress management, self-advocacy and guide dogs. I draw on both professional training and life experiences as a visually impaired nurse. My career has not been what I originally imagined, but it has been rich and fulfilling. I am excited to see what comes next as I explore new opportunities.

Sophie Goes to the Zoo!

Sophie Goes to the Zoo! 

To fight the winter doldrums, my husband and I decided to go to the zoo. The weather was a sunny 77 degrees in Atlanta and we were hoping the animals would be out soaking up the sunshine. We had not been to the zoo since our children were young! I was excited to go as it would be a good opportunity to expose Sophie, my guide dog, to a new environment. I think it is important to continually provide her with new experiences and chances to hone her skills as a guide. Not knowing how she would do, I had a bit of concern too about the outing. I decided to use her Gentle Leader to help her contain her excitement and stay focused, which turned out to be a good idea.

Let's Go To the Zoo!

Let’s Go To the Zoo!

We joined the sea of people who had the same idea at the Atlanta Zoo. When in public with Sophie, I often hear people say to their children “We can’t pet the dog, it is in training” or people ask me, “Are you training her?” The answer is “yes” and “no”. Yes, a guide dog handler is always training their dog as a way of keeping them focused and performing well. Just like us, they are always learning new things and tweaking the dance they do with their partner. And no; she is a graduated guide dog and I am using her as a visually impaired person. I like to believe people think she is still “in-training” because I appear to move with ease and grace and seem to be a good “trainer”! Ha! After-all, I don’t “look blind”. But maybe they ask that because sometimes Sophie pulls an occasional “naughty dog” trick which seems unbecoming of a professional guide dog! (She did sniff out a plate of discarded French fries under a bench, but I caught her just in time!). The truth is probably both. But don’t be too quick to judge please! There are a few basic things about blind people and their guide dogs to understand:

1. Guide dogs are dogs, not machines. They have good days and bad days just like all of us.
2. They have already proven themselves to be up for the job by surviving a rigorous program of professional preparation. Have respect for their training.
3. Sometimes, a guide dog’s behavior is about being in a totally new situation or environment and they need instruction from their handler, who also may be in a new environment, having their own difficulties.
4. It is not always easy to “handle” a guide dog. It takes a lot of time, practice and patience to become a smooth working team. You may not realize the team is new and still getting used to each other.
5. Guide dogs are amazing creatures and learn to follow a series of commands. The handler is responsible for giving the commands clearly and the dog is responsible for carrying them out safely.
6. Many people who use guide dogs have some vision. There are “degrees” of blindness; we fall on a spectrum somewhere between 20/200 or “legal blindness” and “no light perception” at all. Many of us are going blind gradually. We may not “look blind” but we are not “faking it”. Why would we??
7. Though we love our dogs and enjoy many benefits of having them, they are first and foremost a tool of mobility to us.
8. The working team deserves respect; treat us with dignity. Ask for permission to interact with the dog. Talk to the person, not the dog.
9. It is best that you fight the urge to pet and interact with our guide dogs when they are in harness. Don’t pet and then excuse yourself by saying “Oh I just couldn’t help myself, she is so beautiful!”
10. Guide dogs do not do tricks. Sophie is a professional guide dog, not a circus animal. Her greatest “trick” is always evident – guiding me safely in a world full of obstacles and dangers.

Our day at the zoo was delightful! In spite of the crowd, Sophie was on her game. She weaved me through people gracefully and “followed” when I asked her to. She pulled at an eager pace and seemed intrigued by the animals. The tiger was especially interested in her and paced frantically at the fence. It made me nervous so we moved on. All the monkeys gathered on their platform to come see the “pretty dog”, squealing with delight. I enjoyed the sun on my face, the variety of smells and exotic sounds, and the occasional glimpses of the animals I was able to squeeze out of my vision. My husband patiently narrated scenes like the playful antics of the baby gorillas. Despite the many distractions, Sophie handled the challenge and excitement of our adventure like a pro. A good time was had by all! So get out of the house and do something new. It is good for the soul!

Sophie and Po the Panda

Sophie and Po the Panda

Sophie the lioness

Sophie the Lioness

Highlights From Guide Dog School # 7

March 22, 2011 Let’s Go To the Mall!
Little did I know there was so much to learn at the mall with a guide dog! I usually avoid malls because they are so visually confusing, but Sophie handled the mall just fine! And she was a well-behaved shopper! First we went to Target- all 13 of us with our guide dogs. We were a sight to behold and every child in there was squealing about the “doggies” Mothers were trying to explain to their children about “no petting” while the dog is working. This is proper etiquette for the public and it is well known around here since the guide dogs are always out and about town. We are supposed to try to “teach” our local public how to respond to the dog. The dogs are so beautiful and irresistible and friendly. People always want to pet them…but petting is a no-no when the dog is in harness. There are a couple of reasons…one is it distracts them from their work and concentration which could put the person at risk. In Detroit while crossing a HUGE intersection, someone wanted to stop and pet Sophie! People are really bold and impulsive about it. All I wanted to do was get across that road safely! Another reason is that the dogs will learn to solicit attention while in harness-‘cuz what beautiful dog does not want attention? Then it encourages attention seeking behaviors… So we learned how to use a shopping cart while working a dog, how to put them in a sit at the counter when paying, and how to “follow” someone you may be shopping with. My instructor had me give the “follow” command and then zig-zagged all over the store. Sophie stayed right at his heels and enjoyed the game of it! This will be a helpful skill when Kev and I go out shopping or to a restaurant etc. Sophie will learn to follow Kevin. Then we went to the mall and practiced elevators, escalators, stairs, and the follow command. Sophie weaved in and out of the crowd with grace and ease. It is recommended that we avoid escalators whenever possible but they showed us how to use them if we have to in a way to protect their paws. The mall was very busy and over stimulating for the dogs, but Sophie remained focused.

I got my first email from the family that raised Sophie! it was a quick one and I will be getting more info, but this is what I know so far. She was raised in Sioux Falls S. D. The woman is a nurse and has four older kids. She said “they prayed for someone to love Sophie as much as they do”. I am very excited to talk more with her and learn more about Sophie. Oh and she said she will send photos of her puppyhood… Well, the other day we received our handmade, custom leather harnesses…they are really, really nice looking. In the next few days we will be doing exit interviews and signing our contracts for our dogs and receiving our diplomas. They do not do a ceremony here as some schools do…it is low-key. On Friday afternoon, I will arrive home with Sophie. Kevin has been busy getting her supplies ready at home. I feel ready and want to get home to show her around her new home and family. I am SO excited for you all to meet her…but they advise us to keep it quiet for a few days…to not introduce the dog to too many new things and people all at once. i will have a week off at home with her so that will help her adjustment. Time to close for now…hope you are all well Big Hugs from me and Wet Kisses from Sophie! Audrey/Mom
March 23, 2011 Sophie Goes to College
Today in the freezing rain, we went to a nearby college campus to work the dogs. More stairs, elevators and crowded hallways during class changes. We learned a technique called “patterning” which is to teach your dog a specific location or site or landmark that you may frequent. Basically it is to teach them a “find the…” command that is specific to your life. For instance I could pattern Sophie to “find the clinic” upon arrival to school and she would take me right there without any other commands needed. It only takes a few minutes and a few tasty doggie cookies to do it! Things are winding down and I do feel ready to come home. Tomorrow we will learn how to enter vehicles with your dog, do exit interviews and other paperwork. I have a date with several old classmates who i haven’t seen for over 30 years…they are taking me out to dinner and coming to meet Sophie. It should be a great time! Then it is up, up and away back to Georgia. So you may not hear any more from me until i am home. So take care and see you soon! Love, Sophie and Audrey

Highlights From Guide Dog School #1

March 6, 2011 Day of Arrival
Greetings from Leader Dogs in Michigan. It is snowy and about 30 degrees. It was a close one getting on the plane in time because the train broke down at the airport. I think they were holding the plane for me! But all has gone well since then. I just met the other students at dinner. We are 5 men and 3 ladies from all over the US. I am the only “first timer”…all the rest have had as many as 7 dogs! They all speak very highly of LD and the whole experience. My instructor is Kevin 🙂 and he will just have 2 students. So I think it will be great training. We begin in earnest tomorrow after breakfast. Kevin did tell me that my dog is “very lovable” I cannot wait to meet him/her!!!
So are you proud?…i figured out MAGIC all by myself and am using it right now…look out world, here I come! So I will be able to email after all so please everybody write me so I know what is going on while i am out of the loop. And thank you all for your support in this new adventure. I hope it will also be a good experience for the ones I love at home. Take care, love Me, Mom, Audrey
March 7, 2011 The Excitement Builds
Hello all! I will begin to send out daily news from Leader Dog training now. Today was our first day and it was a great day! Of course we are beginning with the basics-feeding, watering, and parking the dog (lingo for going potty). I practiced with a real dog how to walk on a lead and do simple corrections and obedience. Then we learned the equipment; care and use of the harness and special leash. The coolest thing of all today was we received our own GPS devices. It is also a MP3 player that has all the lectures on it. The device is called the Kapten and we are the first class to receive this state-of-the-art equipment. It is really going to be wonderful to use. It will tell you where you are and how long it will take to reach your destination on foot. You can enter landmarks and create your own routes. Very slick! Well, I woke up at 5:30 this am and did not sleep well-I guess because I am excited 🙂 I also woke up with a catch in my back that has gotten steadily worse today. I am hitting the Naprosyn and ice tonight to see if I can’t head it off. It would be a bad time for back pain while handling a large, excited dog!
The instructors are young, energetic and very passionate about what they do here. They are taking great care of us and making it fun. The weather today was sunny and crisp-invigorating really…I enjoyed being outside. So one more day until dog day-woo hoo! Everybody is excited to meet their dog and the instructors are being very tight-lipped about our dogs-no hints-even though we keep trying to pry info from them ha ha ha Write when you can…I am going to hit the hay now…much love and hugs to all, Audrey

From Puppy to Professional

Sophie as a puppy with her puppy-raiser family.

Sophie as a puppy with her puppy-raiser family.

  It will soon be the third anniversary of when Sophie and I became a working team. I have been reflecting on all the ways she has changed and enriched my life. We have come a long way both separately and together in our respective journeys. Sophie has worked very hard to become a confident and competent professional. Much time and effort went in to training and preparing her to be an elite service animal. Receiving  such a guide dog from Leader Dogs has been among the greatest gifts and blessings in my life. A special thanks goes to her loving and dedicated puppy raising family, the Gaeckles of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. They nurtured and invested in Sophie for the first year of her life, giving her every opportunity to be a successful guide dog.  And then…they gave her up so that she could change my life….a selfless  act of service, indeed. I am forever grateful for this incredible creature who guides me, keeps me safe, loves me and is completely devoted to me. There is no other relationship like the special bond between a service animal and their owner. And it is a great privilege  to be  Sophie’s recipient/owner/momma. I thought it might be interesting to share “Highlights from Guide Dog School” in honor of the upcoming anniversary. This will be a series of posts which were emails I sent home to family and friends while I was at Leader Dog to get my first guide dog (Sophie). I left them casual  and largely unedited on purpose. I will let them speak for themselves…enjoy!                                   

Lions Club Presentation

Lions Club Presentation

Perfect For Each Other

 

Always smiling!

Always smiling!

My guide dog Sophie is amazing.  As we trained together to become a team, she wowed and captivated me with her sharp skills, attentive gaze, and beautiful face.

I was certain she was the right dog for me from the very start.

And I was so excited to begin my life with her. I had no idea what it took to become a good team. As I learned the intricacies of being a dog handler from Sophie and the instructors, I began to realize the complexities of this new relationship. Continue reading

Independence May be Overrated

I used to be a fiercely independent type. When I received my diagnosis of Retinitis Pigmentosa and the possibility of blindness registered, I panicked. What would life be like if I could not do “my own thing” on “my own schedule” in “my own way”? Little did I know at the time. Gradually, as my vision receded, so did my confidence, my out-going spirit, my freedom and my independence. There is so much to learn  in order to be “independent” as  a visually impaired person: how to use technology, how to use a white cane, how to use public transportation, how to cook safely, how to use a  guide dog, how to ask for help…it takes courage and motivation and gumption to restore a level of independence in the face of vision loss. But there is more to the equation. Continue reading