Charleston Post-Courier, South Carolina.
Wednesday, March 08, 2006.
By KRISTEN HANKLA.
Tweetie Ford would love to see the face of her dog. She hears that Heidi is beautiful.
"People tell me she's always smiling," Ford says.
If it's true that a dog is happiest when it has a job to do, Heidi has plenty of reason to smile. Her job is of utmost importance: keeping her blind owner safe.
Heidi handles the pressure with grace and poise. Walking slightly in front and to the left of Ford, the guide dog constantly looks left to right for obstacles such as chairs, people and even moving traffic. Heidi watches the ground for changes in terrain. She stops at curbs and at the top and bottom of stairs. She even stops when pavement turns to dirt or gravel.
The dog's protectiveness came into play when Ford was being questioned as a character witness for a good friend in a municipal court proceeding. When an attorney moved in front of his table and began speaking heatedly, pointing his finger at Ford, Heidi got up and moved between her owner and the attorney. The attorney retreated behind his table and changed his tone. The judge later told Ford that Heidi's hair had been standing on end.
The golden retriever/Labrador retriever cross has a sense of her owner's height and size. She stops at overhead dangers, such as low-hanging tree limbs, until Ford reaches out and locates the obstacle. Heidi will not lead Ford through passages that are too small for her.
When instructed, Heidi will find Ford a seat, elevator, escalator, door in or door out, among other objects.
And then there are the things Heidi never was trained to do.
Recently, while she and Ford were in their backyard, the dog nudged her owner's side again and again, trying to get her to move. Ford later learned a limb had cracked, and while it wasn't hanging too low yet, Heidi had reason to worry it would fall.
The bond between Heidi and Ford is palpable. While many dog owners truly love their dogs, Ford appreciates her dog on a different level. For Ford, Heidi equals freedom.
"She's made all the difference in the world, in my life," Ford says.
'I never grieved'
The Charleston native wasn't born blind. She had what most would consider a normal life.
She studied laboratory medicine at the University of South Carolina, where she met her husband, Horace. Later, Ford worked as a lab technician and supervisor at the Medical University of South Carolina, specializing in abnormal hematology. She loved getting to know the patients who came in regularly, though she hated that they needed to be there.
Ford suffered from migraines most of her life. Eventually, they became so intense and frequent she had difficulty distinguishing between normal and abnormal cells while looking through a microscope. She felt she no longer could do her job the way she needed to and resigned. She then spent her time cleaning, cooking and helping her husband, a certified public accountant, at his office.
One winter night in 1995, Ford's husband woke her because she was having difficulty breathing. At the hospital, she was diagnosed with viral pneumonia, her third bout in five years. It was while in the hospital undergoing treatment that the then-45-year-old lost the life she knew.
She remembers it calmly. "I woke up one morning, and I was blind."
She did not awake to total darkness. Instead it was like looking through multiple sheets of wax paper. While her right eye could see colors, her left eye saw only gray. She reached for her glasses. They didn't help.
Ford was confused, as were the doctors.
After three weeks, they found the cause of Ford's blindness: complications from a heart infection had led to a stroke that destroyed the sight-controlling area of her brain.
"The strange thing is I never grieved. I attribute that to my faith. I believe everything happens for a reason," says Ford, whose left eye since has become totally blind. Sight in her right eye is still as blurry as the day she lost her vision, but she still can see colors with the eye.
'Summer of the cast'
Ford says her life is fuller now, and she is doing things she wouldn't have done before. Part of her motivation is the people who think she cannot do certain things because she is blind.
But getting used to her disability was tough. Shortly after returning home from the hospital, Ford fell down the stairs of her two-story home, breaking her right wrist. Another fall a couple of weeks later broke her left wrist. She then fell in a grass-covered hole and fractured her right leg. She now laughingly refers to the time as "the summer of the cast."
After that, Ford was afraid to get out of bed. For nearly two years, she got up only to go to the doctor or for an occasional outing with her husband. She gained 87 pounds.
She lived on other people's schedules. She awoke between 6 and 7 a.m. to bathe before her husband left for work. Her maid at the time left at 2:30 p.m., which meant Ford was alone until her husband came home each evening.
She missed her independence.
Ford and her husband hired an orientation and mobility instructor, and Ford learned to walk with a white cane.
Ford also became involved with the American Council of the Blind, where she made a new friend, Audrey Gunter of Charleston. The two later discovered they had been in the same first-grade class at Memminger Elementary School for a brief time.
Gunter is president of the Dixieland Guide Dog Users and author of "Zack's Tales: Travels of a Guide Dog." She and her golden Lab, Zack, persuaded Ford to apply for her own guide dog.
It's now been two years since Ford and Heidi joined forces, and the two are inseparable.
They go for neighborhood walks. They go shopping. They do yard work such as raking.
They've flown to Florida twice to visit their guide dog school; on one trip, the pair completed a 6K walkathon. They've flown to Las Vegas for a convention of Dixieland Guide Dog Users and the American Council of the Blind.
According to Ford's husband, "Heidi has been a godsend. She has given Tweetie a degree of independence that she couldn't have any other way."
He appreciates the dog's constant protection of his wife.
"She's safer anywhere she goes," he says. "Heidi's not going to let her walk out in front of traffic. Heidi's not going to let her step in a hole or off a curb."
"I never worry when I'm out with her," Ford adds.
Raising a guide dog
Heidi and Zack both came from Southeastern Guide Dogs Inc. in Palmetto, Fla., the closest of about 15 guide dog schools in the United States. Like most of the schools, Southeastern provides guide dogs at no cost to the blind. The cost for the nonprofit organization to raise and train a guide dog is $40,000.
A guide dog's life typically begins at the school. Southeastern breeds mostly Labrador retriever puppies but also golden retrievers, Australian shepherds, Hungarian vizslas, German shepherds, smooth coat collies and "goldadors" such as Heidi.
At 2 months old, each puppy goes to live with a foster family for the next 14-18 months. There they find love, learn basic obedience and become socialized. Volunteers from nine states raise 300 puppies for Southeastern every year. Only 12 puppies are being raised in South Carolina, and only one in tri-county area.
Meet 10-month-old Meg, a black Labrador living with Mike and Peggy Sudol on Johns Island.When she's not in her blue vest, Meg acts like a pet puppy: wild and crazy, chasing neon tennis balls. But she's already learning that when the vest goes on, she's got work to do.
Meg goes to work every day with her foster mom, who is a marriage and family therapist. She sits or lies quietly by Sudol's chair for each hour-long session, and then gets a break outside. The dog often creates an instant connection between Sudol and a new patient.
"There's something about a Lab," she says. "Everyone has a Lab story, or a dog story."
To socialize Meg, the Sudols, parents of four grown children, also take her to stores, restaurants, museums and anywhere else their active lives lead them. They work on basic obedience daily and hope to return a dog with "impeccable manners."
The puppy has a different set of rules than her big brother, Gus, a chocolate Lab from Lowcountry Lab Rescue. Gus is the Sudols' pet. Meg is a guide-dog-to-be. And she came with an extensive manual.
She sleeps in her crate instead of on a bed and is not allowed on any furniture. No people food. No playing in unfenced areas. And no dog parks because there might be dogs with aggression issues or diseases. The Sudols create opportunities for Meg to socialize with other dogs by inviting friends with dogs to their own yard.
The Sudols have been puppy-raising for 10 years. Peggy heard about raising guide dogs when she lived in Connecticut. It sounded like fun to her and it was easy to get involved because her home was only about an hour away from the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation in Bloomfield, Conn. The first seven dogs they raised were from Fidelco.
Meg is the eighth puppy they have raised. When they moved from Connecticut to Charleston a year and a half ago, the Sudols began looking for a closer guide dog school.
With Southeastern, they hope to coordinate a puppy-raiser group in the Charleston area soon. The group would recruit new puppy raisers, meet on a regular basis and offer support throughout the experience. Support from their Connecticut puppy-raiser group helped the Sudols most when it was time to return each puppy to school.
"It's torture," Peggy Sudol says of parting from the puppies.
They learned that overlapping puppies one to two months helps, as well as keeping in mind the puppies are not pets.
"When you go into this, you know you're raising a dog that's not yours. You know you're raising somebody else's dog. You know that this dog is going to go on to help another human being," she says. "As much as we love them, they don't belong to us."
Mike Sudol, a service technician for Saulisbury Business Machines, agrees the process is an emotional roller coaster. But the couple has seen the advantages and will keep climbing aboard.
He says their reason for volunteering has evolved. "When we first started, we did it primarily for the puppies just because we love them so much," he says. "Then you get farther into the program, and you have the opportunity to meet the people who actually receive these dogs."
They've seen what the dogs do for the people. Now it's about the people.
Meg will be one step closer to improving the life of a blind person when the Sudols take her back to Southeastern in August.
In the four to six months that follow, Meg will work with professional trainers to learn more than 40 commands. The most difficult concept will be intelligent disobedience. She will learn to evaluate each situation and will disregard her handler's command if it would put either of them in danger.
If Meg succeeds at all that is asked of her, she will be matched with a visually impaired person based on personality, size, energy and pace. The new owner and Meg will work together intensely at Southeastern for 26 days, at which point they will graduate. By then they will be a team.
Like Heidi, Meg will give her owner greater independence and mobility. She will serve as a protector and companion and make a blind person's life brighter.
Jane Sheehan, office manager of Guide Dog Users, describes working with a guide dog as "a wonderful, joyous thing."
It's a fluid movement, like dancing. Handler and dog learn to read each other's subtle movements. "You're never alone," she says. "You may get lost, but you're never alone."
If you are interested in obtaining a guide dog, raising a puppy or making a financial contribution, contact Southeastern Guide Dogs at (800) 944-DOGS (3647) or visit www.guidedogs.org. For a complete list of guide dog schools, contact Guide Dog Users Inc. at (888) 858-1008 or www.gdui.org.
This article was printed via the web on 3/8/2006 9:49:42 PM . This article appeared in The Post and Courier and updated online at Charleston.net on Tuesday, March 07, 2006.
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