Blind World Magazine

New eyes and paws change professor's life.

Columbia Star, South Carolina.
Friday, February 24, 2006.

Valora left the sunshine of California and flew across the country, arriving in September on the USC campus. Valora had missed the first few days of classes, but she still was full of energy and eager to face the challenges of getting to know the campus.

But the newcomer took it all in stride. Maybe that West Coast optimism helped her adjust so quickly. At USC, she was just another blonde in the crowd, deftly maneuvering the busy streets of an urban campus, scurrying to class and then walking home in the afternoon. But to Dr. JoAnne Herman, Valora was special.

The yellow, two-year-old Labrador retriever was Herman's guide dog and the nursing professor's link to freedom. The two became a team in August when Herman traveled to San Rafael, CA, where Guide Dogs for the Blind, a charitable organization that provides guide dogs for the visually impaired, placed her with Valora.

Their future was decided after Herman underwent several days of observation and questioning by the organization's staff, who then selected Valora to be Herman's companion.

Like Herman, they said, Valora was "smart, sensitive and complex." For Herman, the feelings were mixed. "I didn't know what to expect when I met her, and I didn't know what to do with her," said Herman, who has retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder that leads to gradual vision loss.

A nationally recognized expert on the health effects of stress, Herman felt enormous stress of her own. Not only was she going blind, she had to put her trust and her life in the paws and keen eyes of a total stranger. And it wasn't just any stranger.

"It wasn't love at first sight, for sure," said Herman, a 59-year-old grandmother. "It was like going on a blind date. We were total strangers beginning a relationship. It was very awkward. I didn't know where this would go."

But beginning that day, Valora and Herman put their best feet and paws forward, undergoing an intense, month-long training session that ended with their graduation September 3.

Though their story is only a few months old, Herman's quest to meet Valora actually began when she was in college and started having vision problems in her early 20s. Because she had night blindness, Herman quit driving after the sun went down. Still, she worked to earn her master's and doctoral degrees and didn't seek a diagnosis until she was 30.

By then, Herman had long quit going out alone at night. She went forward with her career, knowing she would be blind. Though her research on stress is supported by the National Institutes of Health, Herman realized she had to practice the stress-coping skills that she had taught for years.

"It was different to be on the other side of stress," said Herman. "I decided that I'd better start practicing what I had been preaching."

The scientist within her emerged. Herman began her research a couple of years ago and found Guide Dogs for the Blind, which has trained guide dogs since 1942. Valora is just one of about 10,000 dogs who have been placed with children and adults throughout the US and Canada over the past six decades.

All in all, the transition has been a good one. Valora quickly learned the path that the two must take from Herman's home in a city neighborhood about a half mile from campus. They travel along busy streets and across dangerous intersections, but Valora gets Herman to her office at USC's College of Nursing safely and on time.

Valora goes to class with Herman, too. During her first semester at USC, Valora audited an undergraduate class on critical reasoning and two graduate courses. A three-hour course made her fidgety at first, probably not unlike the students themselves. And every Wednesday, Herman and Valora hail a cab and travel to the cardiac rehabilitation unit at Palmetto Health, where the nursing professor works with adults who are recovering from heart attacks.

"The patients love her," Herman says. "But they want to pet her and make over her, and that is not permissible when Valora is working."

At the end of the day, when Valora has had enough of college life, she places her head against Herman's leg and looks up at her, as if to say, "Can't we go home now?" When the harness that she wears for her job as guide dog comes off, Valora is transformed into a regular dog, romping and playing throughout Herman's home.

"She's a wild one," Herman said. When people see the two of them together, no one imagines that Valora has given Herman a special gift. "I didn't realize until I had Valora how stressed I was. If I were in a meeting late in the afternoon, I would panic on whether I would get out in time to get home before dark," she said. Now, Valora takes Herman home in the winter night without fear. "She is a gift," Herman said, looking fondly into Valora's brown eyes that now see Herman's world for her.

End of article.

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