Blind Travel

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Planning, logistics and networking.  These are the three buzz words on every person with vision impairments’ brains.   Gone are spontaneity.  Gone forever from your lips is the phrase, “I’ll stop by.”  I can’t ‘run to the store to pick-up bananas’ without assistance.  Relinquished from your ‘Type A’ personality is the control over your own schedule, and doing ‘what you want; when you want to.”  But it’s not all bad. It just takes a village.

7 years ago, on December 11th, I drove a car for the last time.  It was a day like any other monday, and I turned the key to my beautiful brand new convertible, and made my 30 minute commute to my job as the Fine Wine Director for Stew Leonard’s in Norwalk CT.   I pulled into our parking lot, and stared straight out the windshield.  Something was wrong.  I turned my head to grab my lunch on the passenger’s seat, and suddenly the world began a terrible tailspin, a blur of light, color and bending, wavy lines.

I called our Administrative Assistant, whom I knew arrived before me from my car.  “Kerry, I can’t get up.  I’m outside in the parking lot and I need your help.”  “Yes, I can see you out there.  What are you doing?  It’s freezing, get inside.” “I can’t.  My legs won’t work.” “What do you mean, your legs won’t work?”  “I started chemo today.”  “Oh, I’ll be right out.  Hold tight.”

Hours passed and my dizziness and vertigo went from bad to worse.  December in the wine retail business, at CT’s largest wine store meant non-stop 14 hour days, with no sitting, no bathroom breaks and limited opportunities to eat.  There I sat, draped on my office chair, unable to move or turn my eyes or head without throwing up. I cried uncle, and the security guard half-carried me to his truck and took me back to my couch in Fairfield, where I remained for three months.

For three months I cried, was terribly ill, and stared hopelessly out the window at my shiny black hard-top convertible, with its handsome white leather seats and brilliant chrome trim and rims.  It taunted me from my new home, the sofa, where I needed to sleep, eat and attempt to check in with work between vomiting and attempting to lift my head from the pillow.  I lusted for the feel of the burled wood steering wheel between my hands.  The thought of running to the pharmacy to pick up yet another anti-nausea medication made me salivate with anticipation.  But it was not to be.

I had officially crossed the threshold of being ‘legally blind’, which means that you trade in your driver’s license for a social security disability card, a discount bus and train pass, a handicap placard for the people that will now be carting you to doctor’s appointments, you get a free snazzy white cane to attempt to walk from point a to point B, and a free fishing license.  Yup!  Apparently in CT you get your own laminated fishing license to spend your days now trying to catch your own dinner.  Sounded like fun.

It took me about 3 months and two car-pedestrian accidents before I realized that I was much better suited to a dog than a cane.  While the cane was great at telling you WHAT it was you were about to run into, it didn’t do a great job with silent hybrid vehicles that seemed to have a way of getting in my way.  Enter Guiding Eyes Elvis, the first and best good decision I made as someone living with vision loss.

After a lot of false starts and being stranded living in Suburbia, I realized that there really is an art to traveling while disabled.  I lived in a bad community for a visually impaired person.  The trains were sporadic, the busses more so, and the sidewalks were often uncleared in the winter-time, forcing my guide dog to navigate me in the street, playing chicken against distracted drivers in poorly lit areas at night.  When I finally reached the bus stop, often there was no access to the street curb due to huge mounds of snow plowed against the sidewalk, leaving Elvis and I unable to board our bus.  If we didn’t stand at the EXACT bus-stop sign, drivers would cruise right past us, spraying us head to toe with muddy snow and salt, thinking that I didn’t “Look” blind, and must just be some lady walking my dog.  In a harness.

After being left by the even more unreliable handicap transit in a dark office park with no cell phone service one night in Trumbull, freezing in the cold, I made the decision that it was no longer safe for me to live in an area where these horrors kept happening.  I’m not a city girl, having grown up on a horse farm, so a large town with good walking access and transit would be the goal.  So I moved to Greenwich.

After getting my guide dog, moving to Greenwich was the SECOND good decision I made for myself.  While it’s not financially accessible for someone living on fixed social security disability pay, it was ideally set up for someone living with vision loss.  So, at the ripe age of 35, I would get my first roommate.  The streets have cross-walk lights, there’s grocery, pharmacy and retail access, a beautiful YMCA with a pool, and a huge infrastructure for pubic transit thanks to the wealth of the hedge fund businesses that reside here.  I found a new home.

I’m now a visually impaired Paratriathlete, racing and training with Team USA for the Paralympics in Rio 2016.  My life is dramatically different, and I’ve become savvy at making all the moving parts of my busy life work, between selling wine, working out, public speaking, and traveling to races all over the world.  I make it work.  How?  PLANNING, NETWORKING AND LOGISTIC management.

Prior to my vision loss, I had the luxury of being late for appointments and meetings.  Now, my life is relegated to public transit or the kindness of my many friends and Facebook aquaintances who help ‘Team Dixon’ get to doctor’s appointments more than 40 miles away in New Haven, Danbury, Boston, and all the spots that public or handicap transit cannot get me to.  The countless emergency eye surgeries and exams on the weekends have all been made possible due to my network of incredibly kind, loving and generous men and women.

For surgery, I’m not allowed to take public transit, and someone has to be arranged to assist me with my dog and cooking for a few days, as I’m usually too medicated to do normal functions, and not allowed to bend over while my eyes are bandaged.  16 surgeries in 5 years, and it has taken at least a dozen people to help me with transit to follow-up appointments and procedures.

When traveling for triathlon and cycling races, a lot goes into planning.  Glaucoma and Uveitis are nasty diseases, and the thought of losing my $800 per month medications in checked luggage frightens the Dickens out of me. So, carry-on luggage becomes an art.  I need someone to help me find my hotel when I land, and plan how to get to my race or watch Elvis while I run with my guide. My guide dog needs to remain on his strict diet of Iams’ Lamb and rice, each day at 6 am and 6pm.  These need to be packed in individual baggies, with extra in case of flight cancellations.  When traveling abroad, I need to call the hotel and ship the food and confirm its arrival in advance in order to avoid heavy baggage fees for more extensive stays. Plus, there’s the paperwork with Elvis.  He needs a health certificate and exam within ten days of travel, adding a visit to Westchester to Guiding Eyes on my ‘to-do’ list.

Finally, I have a GIANT bike.  My tandem racing bike (borrowed by a generous team Dixon supporter) is 8 feet long, weighing 36 pounds on its own and about 55 with the bike case it flies in.  I’ve been restricted to getting to the airport via friends and family with SuVs and Mini-vans due to the cumbersome size, as regular shuttles simply won’t take me.  When I GET to the airport, someone has to fetch a gate agent to come out and assist me with luggage, bike and dog as I drag my triathlon gear onto the plane.  Our coaches ask that we carry on all race essentials- uniform, helmet, shoes and pedals, in case of luggage loss.  I basically look like a hiker ready for Kilimanjaro.

Elvis is easy.  I feed him as normal on the day of our flight, and do one last potty-break before going through security.  I try to get direct flights when I can, but when I have a layover, I prefer it be at least two hours so he gets a chance to go out in between flights.  He travels beautifully, and gets lots of admiration from flight attendants and other travelers as he sleeps his way through a 5 hour flight with ease.

Finally, each Sunday night, I look at my calendar, check the bus and train schedule, and set reminders on my phone for each bus or train I need to take, allowing time to walk to the station and stopping for coffee.  The alerts keep me on track, and force me to stay organized with my time.  I look at my training schedule and hit facebook, email and text to line up guides for my runs, bike rides on the tandem, and open water swims at the beach.  My roster of guides builds each month, and I’m delighted that I now know more than 15 fantastic local guides willing to donate their precious time to help me achieve my athletic goals.

Monday morning, I try to fill in the gaps in transit with lining up rides to dr appointments by calling or texting friends and relatives, and using handicap transit as my last resort due to its unreliable nature.  Sometimes, you get what you pay for.  And lastly, when the plan all goes out the window, and I forget my phone on the dresser at home?  It’s an expensive taxi ride home to get it.  It’s like running a full-time ‘driving Miss Amy’ business, as my family likes to call it.

I’m blessed that I have a charge account with the local taxi service and wince each month, especially during the cold winter months, as I look at my statement.  I use it so much that they send me a box of chocolate each Christmas.  Apparently, I need to walk more.  Even with networking, facebook, and planning, sometimes you’ve just GOT to go get bananas at the store at 9pm.  Hey, I may be a blind athlete and sommelier, but I AM human.

Thank you to my friends and family for making my days a blessing and all of this success possible.  LOVE and Gratitude.

Feeling Inspired and what that means to me

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PINCH ME.  Seriously.  I simply cannot be REALLY living this life I’m living.  I’ve never experienced such a roller coaster of emotions as I have these past 8 months, particularly the past 4 weeks.  

I just left a wonderful, uplifting movie about the great, (though difficult) man Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Computer.  One of the things I’ve discovered has enabled me to endure the difficulties of my life is the mantra that Steve Jobs lived by.  Do not live IN the world; Go out and create your OWN life.  When catastrophe strikes, be it devastating illness, the loss of a limb, the loss of a loved one, then ending of a career, it is those people who go out and create their own lives, NEW lives that flourish and dare to be different.  I happen to believe that I’m one of these people.  Whenever I hit an obstacle, I’m always able to find my way around it, and to make that obstacle disappear in the future.  I can always find my way, both literally and figuratively.

I know where I get it from, my awesome mother, who saw herself out of a terrible, dangerous abusive marriage some 30 years ago.  She ‘found a way’ to raise two girls and keep a sense of normalcy while keeping a roof over our heads as a housekeeper for Vera Wang.  We had horses, 4-H Club, Girl Scouts, Swimming, tennis, soccer, and music.  She did that.  She found a way by putting herself through wallpapering school then starting her own business so she could make her own hours and be there for us each and every day.  She refused help in the many forms it was offered.  Yet she found a way.  

I’ve felt like I’ve owed it to her to do the same.  When I got diagnosed in college with a rare eye disease, I hit the books and did the research on doctors and treatment (before the invention of Google).  I had no health insurance, and needed tens of thousands of dollars worth of testing.  I got a credit card and worked three jobs to pay it off.  I too, had found a way.  I knew no matter how bad things would get, I would make a life for myself.  Sadly, no longer as a budding future pharmacist, but I did have an awesome palate and wealth of wine knowledge, and a passion for horses.  So what did I do?  I figured it out by making a name for myself as a promising young woman in the wine business.  I networked, I wrote, I tasted thousands and thousands of wine, all to better equip myself for an uncertain future with my eyesight.  

When my father passed away, leaving me a costly horse to upkeep, I began training and teaching students, then showing and shipping horses to keep hay in the manger and shoes on his feet.  I bought a truck and trailer, and trained with some of the best instructors in the world.  I bartered, I scraped, and did ANY job that came my way, from mucking stalls to braiding manes for the show circuit.  I got it done, because I was busy creating my world. 

Fast forward nearly 15 years, and my life has changed dramatically.  I’ve continued to slowly lose my sight from a rare form of Uveitis, and now, glaucoma.  I’ve created a world in which I can not only live, but THRIVE in, due to the blessings of Guiding Eyes for the Blind in the form of my Guide Dog, Elvis.  My life is not only different from what I had envisioned for myself, it is better.

When my disease came out of remission five years ago, I was terribly depressed and afraid.  I had never actually spoken to a blind or visually impaired person, and I felt so scared and alone, uncertain of what my life would look like.  I was in debt, unhappy in my job, and about to go through a series of chemotherapy and surgeries that would transform the way I lived my daily life.  I gained nearly 50 pounds, developed debilitating migraines, and had terrible side effects from the high dose steroids I was on.  

The expression, “When God closes a door, he opens a window”, really holds true here.  Thanks to my friend Alan Gunzburg, I found a way to get help through social services, teaching me how to live in the world as a visually impaired person.  Through my friend Scotty, I found a way to have my own voice at work and advocate for myself. She introduced me to a whole new world of people like me through the power of social media, allowing me to feel part of a community of people again.  Through my wonderful customers in the wine industry, I was offered an opportunity to become my own boss and to create my dream job of being a business owner and wine educator.  I had found a way.

Now, as I face another tough chapter in my vision loss, I find it overwhelming to look back at how my life has changed for the better, and the world I’ve created for myself through great friendships and wonderful cheerleaders along the way.  Eight short months ago, I was in total physical disrepair, reliant on painful cortisone and numbing injections to even handle walking to the bus stop or up a flight of stairs at the train station.  I had ballooned to a size 14 from my size 4, and avoided mirrors and social settings and hated any photos I saw of myself.  

When the chemo stopped working to control my eye inflammation, I found a doctor who specialized in autoimmune related eye disease, and had invented a special implant that controls the disease without the systemic side effects.  Yet again, I had found a way to keep seeing, despite what the statistics said about my eye-sight-robbing diagnosis.  I bought myself more time.  Time to check off things on my “Vision-loss Bucket List”, or as my stepfather prefers to call it, my “Things to do before I can’t see anymore” list.  I bought myself three good years where I got to travel to California, Italy, and all over the United States meeting amazing new friends and supporters along the way.  

Last year, after my 9th eye surgery, I had an anaphylactic reaction to a drug, causing my adrenal and thyroid glands to stop working.  My weight ballooned yet again, and I became frustrated living on egg whites and Greek Yogurt.  A fortunate turn of events brought to light my adrenal issue, and I got on the waiting list to see one of the top Endocrinologists in the country.  I called and called until they had a cancellation, determined to FIX my broken glands and get back on track to good health.  

As luck would have it, I fell and broke my foot on the day my surgeon finally agreed to let me get back to exercise.  My friend Carol helped me ‘find the way’ around the broken foot and back into the pool, a place I loved as a kid and high school swimmer, that would allow me the benefits of exercise without hurting my foot.  Pretty soon I became hooked on it, and started taking spin classes with my friend Wendy, my fiercest supporter.  

By chance, I met the woman who opened the biggest door for me this year, Caroline Gaynor, the triathlon director for a veteran’s Charity known as Team Red White and Blue www.teamrwb.org .  Caroline specializes in guiding visually impaired athletes in all types of running races and triathlons, from sprint distances to Ironman.  I had no idea that blind folks could even attempt something like that, let alone complete it.  

Suddenly the world of encroaching darkness and my urgency to ‘see it all before I can’t’ faded and I was able to live in the present again.  I always like to say, “Expect the worst and hope for the best,” and I truly meant it.  While I can prepare and not avoid the fact that I’m going blind, I can do what I can to prepare for it, and then get on with my life.  

Through the sport of Paratriathlon, I’ve now met more than a dozen blind athletes, and chatted with several dozen online.  Who KNEW that this community even existed?  I used to look at my impending blindness as a sort of death; the death of my ability to see, but I realized that there is light after darkness.  There is a whole world out there I didn’t know existed, and these folks are welcoming me there with open arms.  Through the power of social media and incredible organizations such as Achilles, Challenged Athletes Foundation, and Team RWB, I had found my way.  
In 8 short months, I’ve completed 5 triathlons, gotten sponsored by a triathlon club to race, recruited to a top sports agency, and trained with the top coaches in the country as a triathlete, with an eye on the 2016 Paralympics. Seriously, is this my life? I’ve received scholarships to attend camps, and run alongside Ironmen and women at the top of the sport. I’ve lost nearly 40lbs, and fit into those skinny size 6 jeans again. I can’t BELIEVE the life I’ve created and the folks that have helped me achieve this success in such a short time.

While I’m still very afraid for the encroaching darkness that will ensue, I find comfort in seeing my peers succeed and thrive as blind athletes, engineers, software programmers, lawyers, writers, comedians, massage therapists, and so much more.  I won’t just have a life after blindness.  I am going to have a great life as a triathlete, business owner, advocate for the blind, and sommelier.    My ‘Bucket List’ is no longer the giant laundry list it once was, and I now realize I can still do ALL of those things after I lose my vision.  Thank you mom, for teaching me, that yes, We ALL can “Find our Way”.

 

10 Days after the Dog Attack

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Well, I just got back from my first painful physical therapy session for my ankle.  I’m going to work really hard to get back to my pre-attack strength and continue my triathlon training with Elvis at my side.  He’s such an awesome pup.  His attitude and enthusiasm is infectious, and were it not for this, I probably wouldn’t have left my apartment at all this past week.

Fortunately the Orthopedic surgeon allowed me to swim as my foot and ankle allowed this week, and it feels great to be able to at least get out of the house and do something.  The only time of year that I actually don’t mind no longer driving is spring, and I’ve been robbed of my daily walks to run errands, take Elvis to the dog park, and the YMCA- the epicenter of my social life.  I feel more isolated than I’ve felt in a long time, and it makes me even more angry each time I look out the window and think, “I’ll go walk for some pineapple at Whole Foods.”  Not happening.

My panic attacks at the sound of a jingling collar or barking dog would send me running back to my apartment if only I could run right now.  Instead, I do as Kathy from Guiding Eyes for the Blind taught me last week.  Stop Elvis, and immediately drop the harness handle that is my instant form of communication between the two of us.  The harness handle is a two-way communication device that is extremely sensitive.  He can feel everything I’m feeling through that device, and vice versa.  So when I’m frightened and feeling panicked, at this point it’s imperative that he not feel that through the handle, to convince him that everything’s ok in the presence of another dog.  Allowing him to feel my fear and panic through the handle would have devastating effects on his training and willingness to work in the presence of other dogs.

Guide dogs who have been attacked often develop a fear of the breed or color of dog that attacked them.  This fear can lead to detrimental obstacles in their job performance, causing them to shy away from other dogs, walking their handler into an obstacle out of extreme distraction, or even running into the street to get away from an approaching dog, pulling their blind handler into extreme danger and traffic.  The other result of such an attack is often sadly aggression towards other dogs, specifically with the type or color that attacked them.   Either of these behavioral and training issues would result in immediate retirement of the Guide Dog.

The thought of Elvis retiring after only 4 years of service makes me cry.  So, I stand- frozen, shaking, with my head darting left and right, looking for the source of the barking, praying it doesn’t come close to us, all the while, my guide standing next to me at attention, wondering why we’ve stopped our work, confused at my odd behavior.  The second step after stopping is crucial.   Kathy advised me that I have to carry ‘high value’ dog treats (in Elvis’ case, that’s freeze-dried duck- YUM!) that he normally doesn’t get during a normal work day.  I was told to put him into a sit on leash, not harness, and immediately start feeding him tons and tons of duck, giving lots of verbal praise until the dog has passed safely by.

Living in the ‘doggiest’ town in Fairfield County, Greenwich is loaded with all sorts of dogs, from toy poodles to giant Greyhounds.  A single block on Greenwich Avenue, where I do a lot of my errands, can mean stopping three or four times in a single block.  Needless to say, I’m buying stock in duck, and getting to my destinations VERY slowly between all the stops and hobbling on my ankle.

However, this is progress, as for the first three days I couldn’t even sleep, reliving the attack in my dreams every time my head hit the pillow.  I know it will get better.   I’m working with local politicians to have a copy of the town and state leash laws listed on every dog license application with a line that each licensee must SIGN to acknowledge that they understand the laws pertaining to control of their animals.  While it may not undo last week’s attack, perhaps it will prevent a future one on a person or animal who cannot defend itself, such as was our case.   This will be progress….

The Aftermath of the Attack

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Numb, I sat on the couch staring at the wall in my silent apartment.  Elvis rested on the floor, his giant head using my good leg for a pillow.  I turned my gaze to the bag of ice resting on my swollen ankle, propped up on the coffee table, cushioned by my good feather pillow, which was slowly getting soaked by the melting ice.  Crap, I thought.  How the heck am I going to get this back to the freezer in the kitchen without making a mess?  I resolved to just let it melt there and deal with the stinky feather pillow later.  I looked towards the prescription bottle of Percocet, thinking how grateful I was to have some left over from my eye surgery.  At least I would sleep tonight.  So I thought.

1am- Soaked with sweat, I threw the covers off to the floor.  Elvis sprawled beside me, stretching and yawning loudly at my disturbance.  “Sorry buddy, I cooed, reaching my arm around his body, curled into the fetal position.  I lay there, stroking his ears, which beared the marks of the attack, covered in dried saliva from our attacker. My eyes filled with tears again.  “I’m so sorry buddy.  I’m so sorry.”

Each time I began to drift off to a restless sleep, I kept hearing the dog’s growl and my own screams for help.  I saw flashes of a woman in dark clothes standing over me, frozen and seemingly deaf.  In my dreams, I kept reaching out to her with outstretched arms, begging for help, while she stood watching, her arms folded across her chest.  Why?  I kept thinking?  Why would she do that?  My head whipped violently around, right and left, right and left, scanning, searching for the dog.  Where was he?  Where was he going to grab Elvis next?  I was desperate to locate him, and quieted my screams, so I could listen and anticipate the next attack before it came.

This dream continued all night, and by 6am I finally gave up on sleep.  It was fruitless.  There would be no rest for a while, I dejectedly resolved.  I put on the walking cast and hobbled to the kitchen for my morning coffee.  Normally, when I’m feeling out of sorts, my ‘therapy’ is a good long swim or an hour spin class to sweat out my anxiety or frustration.  I sighed a shaky breath, realizing that my spinning and swimming days were inevitably postponed and that the four walls of my apartment were going to seem pretty small pretty fast.

Social media is just that- social.  I needed some people to distract me from my own thoughts and the events of the day before.  My Facebook family and Guiding Eyes for the Blind family would become my lifeline over the coming days.  My first call was to the training department at Guiding Eyes.  I knew that after any trauma, the important objective was to get Elvis out working as quickly as possible, to avoid giving the incident more power over us as a team than it already had.  They listened , offered their sympathies, and told me that I should be hearing back from an instructor shortly.

At 9am, I called the Darien Police Department, hoping to catch the K9 Officer who had helped apprehend the woman the day before.  The operator said that he would be back in at 3pm and to call him then.  Finally, I reached out to my Orthpedic Surgeon, and booked an appointment for the afternoon.  Gingerly, I hopped in my cast to the freezer to continue icing my swollen ankle.  A new friend and neighbor offered to take Elvis and I to our appointment that afternoon, and I spent the day avoiding the million phone calls from well-wishers that had heard about the incident.  Having been a public figure in the wine industry for so long, I am fortunate to have a lot of friends in print and television media.  They insisted I get my story out there to warn the public of the dangers of off leash dogs and what that means to those of us who are disabled.  I felt I finally had an outlet for all the sadness, terror and anxiety I was feeling.

I reached out to my friends on Guiding Eyes’ email list.  The hundreds of graduates from GEB were an amazing support network, and many of them had been through the exact same thing over the years with each of their guides, some even having to retire them after the dog could no longer work.  The outpouring of similar stories and support was like a warm bath.  With each telling, I felt my nerves settle and my heart beat slower.  They GOT it.  Elvis is not a pet.  I cannot see well enough to protect us from anything.  No one except the visually impaired community understands that- not even close.  To feel so helpless during such an attack is a feeling I never want to know again.  Email after email rolled in, suggesting I invest in pepper spray.  I had no idea how many Guide Dog Users carry it- I was shocked.

I had thought about pepper spray in the past during some scary moments in our travels, but feared I would accidentally spray myself or Elvis, unable to determine the nozzle’s direction with my limited sight.  Especially in an emergency.  I realized that I was perhaps naive in this thinking, and resolved to hit Amazon to search for something foolproof to protect us in the future.

My ankle began to throb, and as I removed the walking cast for the next round of ice and dose of Percocet, I noticed that my knee was banged up with a large cut.  I laughed out loud, remembering how adrenaline can cause ‘anesthetized trauma’ where you don’t feel anything until you come down from the frightening episode, and thanked my online friends for the distraction from my beat-up body and scrambled mind.  Reaching down, I stroked Elvis’ matted coat, still dry and sticky from all the saliva, and resolved that I would make it off the couch at some point today and attempt a grooming to restore both of our dignities.

Guide Dog Attacked Cont’d

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I hugged my shaking Guide close to my body, feverishly stroking his saliva-covered velvet ears.  “It’s OK buddy, we’re ok,” I said in reassurance to both of us, knowing fully that we were not.  I heard voices to my left, and stood up, waving my hands in the air like a complete lunatic.  “Help, please!” The people came running over.  “My dog and I were just attacked by a loose dog.  The woman ran off.  Did you see her?”  “Yes!  The man said.  “She went down that side street in a hurry.”  I retold the story, to which the husband said he would track her down until the police arrived.

Within a few minutes, I heard a barking dog in a car.  A K9 Officer.  My heart jumped into my throat again, and panic began at the sound of the dog’s voice.  The folks calmed me down, saying the dog was staying inside the officer’s vehicle.  Phew.  I sat back down on the curb and hugged Elvis again.  The woman said she lived in Greenwich and knew Elvis and I from around town. I thanked heaven for these people to assist.

The officer kneeled down and asked if it was ok to touch Elvis.  I said, “yes- please do- I can’t tell if he’s hurt and I don’t know if all this wet stuff is blood.  Oh my God, please tell me he’s ok?” I was hysterical.  Elvis obliged the officer by licking his face and beating him with a wagging tail.  Everyone laughed.  I remember a saying from my old Irish Equine vet.  “Ah- the injury’s FAR from his heart!” and I smiled.  What a brave sweet dog I have.  The officer stood up and said he didn’t see any blood.  He was anxious to get in his car and find the woman.  I told him the address she had shouted to me, and his reply was, “Oh THAT place?  Great.  We get a lot of calls there.”  He took my business card, left me with the nice people, and off he went in pursuit.

The folks offered me a ride back to Greenwich, but all I was focused on was my dog and getting on the next train out of there as soon as possible.  I used Elvis’ harness like a crutch, and we hobbled along the sidewalk to the train platform with the group in tow.  The train would be there in three minutes, and they offered to drive us if I missed it.  I planned to get home and head straight to the emergency room for my stupid ankle.  Dammit, I thought to myself.

Elvis and I made the train, and of course it was packed to the gills heading back towards the city on a Sunday afternoon.  We stood in the corridor and the conductor grabbed my arm to see if I was ok.  I definitely wasn’t.  I knew that protocol for any injury or incident involving our dogs requires an immediate call to Guiding Eyes for the Blind to report it after we deal with the local authorities.  I leaned against the train doors and dialed, balancing on my one good foot.

I left a message with the emergency operator, who arranged for a vet and the training department to call me back shortly.  I needed a familiar voice.  I called mom after I hung up, trying to stay calm and not lose it totally in public surrounded by hundreds of commuters.  Of course, she wanted to come down, but I knew that it would take more than an hour to get there, and there wasn’t much she could do for us.

I grabbed a taxi at the base of the train station.  My phone rang.  It was Dr. Bell from Guiding Eyes’ Veterinary Hospital.  The first thing she asked was how I was.  I was shocked.  “Elvis seems ok, I can’t really tell- the officer did a quick….” She cut me off, “No, I asked how YOU were doing.  I’m more worried about you right now.  Take a breath.” And with that I finally started to cry.  “I’m not ok.  I’m not ok. I’ve never been more scared in my entire life.” “I know,” she soothed.  You’re going to be ok.  Now reach down and give Elvis a good squeeze.  You guys are together, and that’s the most important thing, ok?

Are you injured?” “Just my stupid ankle I think,” I tried to squeak out, my throat tightening. “ok”, she said- here’s what you’re going to do.  You’re going to go get checked out at the emergency room.  Elvis will be fine,ok?  As long as he’s with you, he’s all right.  Then you’re going to call me after they release you, and we’ll either come and meet you, or I want you to have a neighbor come by and look at him off harness to really check him out with a good set of eyes.  Can you do that for me?” “Yes,” I squeaked again.  “Ok, you’re going to be fine.  Call me as soon as you get done.  I’m here.”

On the cab ride to the hospital, I had a sudden moment of clarity.  I had broken my foot in a fall last May, and the idiots at the Greenwich Hospital ER mis-read the X-rays.  Going there would mean a good three hours of being in a loud, frightening place all for them to send me home with ice, crutches and pain meds, all of which I had at my apartment.  I decided to call my Orthopedist from the taxi.

After a brief conversation, they agreed that there was no benefit in going to the ER given that I had everything to keep me comfortable at home.  The only concern was making sure I splint and immobilize it until my doctor could see me first thing Monday.  I remembered the dreaded Aircast boot.  Perfect.  With that, I told the driver to turn around and take us home.  I reached down and kissed my boy on the head and finally took that breath she had been talking about.

Attack on my Guide Dog

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This is the hardest post I’ve ever written.  I’ve heard the horror stories, and always told myself- that it would never happen to us; we live in a nice area with well trained dogs and responsible owners.  Statistically, I told myself that the likelihood of it happening was so minute that I should just put it out of my mind.  Having owned horses my whole life, I am a practical person when it comes to animal ownership and know the risks and benefits associated with each.  You still never think it will happen to you.  Until it does…

Elvis and I have been a team for 4 years this March.  We just celebrated our anniversary.  We’ve been through Eleven eye surgeries at Yale, horrific rain and snow storms, parades, major mountain climbing, a painful nerve injury to his tail, and dangerous faulty train doors that have trapped him by the neck.  I really thought our ‘tough stuff’ was behind us.   Never would I have thought that a routine walk home to the train in downtown Darien would leave us permanently scarred.  The sun was shining, and I had just finished a terrific meeting for my new project, The Wine Lab, my restaurant to be opening this fall.

Walking along the adorable shops, I heard a scuffle take place amongst some dogs again.  I noted that I would take the long way around the buildings to avoid interacting with these dogs as I’m always wary of any poorly behaved or aggressive dog.  Would you throw your Ferrari in the commuter lot with a bunch of Hondas to get scratched and dinged?  I don’t think so.

We continued on our way, as I saw the dog scuffle breaking up.  The typical Fairfield County scene- some woman not paying attention to her dog, while her cell phone is glued to her ear, and the other walking two dogs that did not know how to behave on leash, growling and barking at the cell phone lady’s tiny pup.  In the horse world we call this being “over-mounted” or having too much horse for you to handle.

I turned the corner to discover that about 20 yards ahead was this woman again with the two dogs, A yellow Labrador who clearly wanted to greet Elvis, and a little black Cattle Dog or some sort of Heeler that began trotting towards us.  Uh-oh.

I’ve come across loose dogs dozens of times.  It always disorients me and causes me to bump into something as I’m trying to refocus my dog and get back in the direction I was headed.  Sometimes they even snap at Elvis, who ducks away or scoots to put some distance between us and the dog.  I usually give the command, “Hup-up”, equivalent to clucking to a horse to make it move faster.  Typically in these situations I can pretend to ignore the offending dog, who realizes Elvis isn’t a threat, and they drop back or give us a few warning barks and we are on our way.  Every now and then they get his ear or grab his neck.  This was just such a dog.  It was like lightening.

I screamed as Elvis was yanked down to the sidewalk by this fierce and determined creature.  The woman was being dragged towards me by her Labrador who wanted to investigate.  My blood pressure shot through the roof as my heartrate skyrocketed, causing my vision to completely wash away.  I was now completely blinded. I heard the muffled growls coming from the dog’s mouth which was buried in Elvis’ neck scruff. I grabbed the back of this dog’s neck and flung him with every ounce of strength I had.  I began screaming for help.  I caught glimpses between the flashing lights that make up my vision when my heart rate jumps.  It’s like being in a bad pyschedelic disco without the music.  Disoriented, I felt for Elvis’ body, which was laying still on the ground.  I laid on top of him to cover as much of his body to protect him as I possibly could.  Since I could no longer see anything, it was the only thing left to do, as I didn’t know where or when the next attack would come from.

The dog came again, grabbing Elvis’ leg that was sticking out.  My foot made purchase on his side and I shoved him hard away from us.  Sensing an opportunity, I tried to stand up to make myself as big and frightening as possible to the dog to keep him from grabbing Elvis yet again.  I screamed and made myself as tall as I could.  Being totally disoriented  from the attack, I fell.  Off the sidewalk, I landed in dirt on a bush.  When I tried to stand, I realized my ankle was injured.  I needed to get back to my boy.  I could hear the dog pulling on Elvis’ body like a canine body tug of war.  Crawling,  I found Elvis again, still on the ground, and covered him as I was able to remove the dog from his neck yet again.

I was screaming for help, and could see as I lay there that the woman stood off to one side, about 10 feet away, silent.  She didn’t call the dog, or try to retrieve her dog.  I screamed, “Help me! Call the police! Hurry!”  To which she replied, “No.  No police.”  I dug for my phone in my pocket, attempting to dial 911.  My hands shook violently and I kept mis-dialing.  I tried using Siri on my IPhone, but she couldn’t understand me in my panicked state.  I begged, “Please, help!” She walked towards me, and I backed up, afraid for the next attack.  My hands were on Elvis, who was covered in either blood or saliva.  I had no way of telling which one it was.

Once I was standing, she said, “I need to get my dogs home before they bite someone else.” She turned to walk away.  “No, don’t!  Please stay!  You can’t leave me here!”  My phone finally dialed, and I was trying to make sense to the officer on the phone.  I screamed to the fleeing woman, “Where am I? I Don’t know where I am?  I don’t know the street!  Oh my God, help me please?  Please stay?  Who are you?  Where do you live?”

She shouted her name and street address to me and said, “I really have to be going.”  Defeated, I sat down on the curb.  I decided that I needed to follow her and stood up.  Elvis still laid on the ground, shaking violently.  I helped him up, and gave him the command, “Follow”.  I took two steps before I doubled over in pain. “Dammit!” I yelled as I remembered the ankle.  And with that she was gone.

Excerpt from “Blind Tastings”- Elvis’ trip to NYC

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Stepping out into the lobby at Vitreous, Retina, and Macula Consultants of NY, I was greeted by the familiar faces of Maria and the other ladies of the reception desk.  They oohed and aah-ed over Elvis, as my Guiding Eyes trainer Kate and I hit the water fountain to give him some much needed water to calm his panting from our successful trip from CT via train, then learning how to navigate the subway system and streets of NYC.  We had all worked really hard to get there.  Finally, Lori and Gene, my two favorite employees at VRMNY came out to meet the new addition to my family.  I took the harness off of Elvis and allowed them to give him lots of adoring pats and scratches as he wiggled and wagged his way into their hearts.  Kate insisted that we make a big fuss over him when we reached our destination so that the next time I needed to come here, he would associate something extremely positive with this location, and therefore remember how to get here.  Nurse Lori had sweetly prepared a doggie care package for our arrival, handing me a bag with toys and treats for Elvis.  Our meeting was bittersweet, as they had watched my disease progress over the past 11 years, and it had now gotten to the point where I needed the help of a guide dog.  I was so grateful to have them be among the first people to meet Elvis, as they were pivotal in helping me over the years adjust to my blindness.  As I gave them each a teary-eyed hug, I put on his harness and prepared Elvis for our journey back to Connecticut.

On the way back to Grand Central, Kate and Bill, my BESB mobility instructor, kept a greater distance, watching Elvis and I work together from afar.  I was immediately sweating, both from exertion and nerves as we bobbed and weaved our way down the sidewalk on our 17 block walk back to the terminal.  About three blocks from Grand Central, Kate had us stop and regroup.  She explained to me that Grand Central Station must be to Elvis THE most important place he’s ever been to before.  In order to make it that important, I had to bring out the special toy we had brought along with us at the time we reach the door to Grand Central, and drop the harness, signaling to him that he could be “at ease” and play with him a lot, saying over and over again, “Good Boy- Grand Central! Good Boy- Grand Central”    She wanted me to make a huge fuss over him, so that in the future he would associate Grand Central with a really great, happy place, and that he would always want to go there if I should ever get lost in NY.

With that, we sped our way to Grand Central, hurtling towards the imposing building at lightning speed, dodging strollers, bikers, manhole covers and businessmen on cell phones.  As we approached the door, I got excited and began to smile and said repeatedly, “Hup to Grand Central.  Atta boy, Hup to Grand Central.”  As I opened the heavy wood door to the terminal, I dropped the harness and handle, got down on one knee, cupping his block head in my hands, and said, “Good Boy!” With all the enthusiasm I could muster.  Elvis excitedly began to wag his tail, hopping onto my knees to give me a big wet lick on the nose, realizing that we had reached our final destination.

After our little celebration, I looked up from where we stood in the doorway.  “Oh no!” I shouted to no one in particular.  There I was, in the doorway to Grand Central Market’s Murray’s Cheese Shop, surrounded by piles of Reggiano Parmesan, and cured salamis and Soppressata.  I had gone to the wrong door! “Crap!” I muttered to Elvis, who anxiously sat wagging at attention, awaiting his well-deserved treat.  Resolving that we were ALMOST there, and that it was MY mistake and not his, I handed Elvis his new toy, as he joyously leapt back and forth, waving it victoriously in the air.  “Yes boy, good job” I chuckled out loud as both Bill and Kate came up beside me.  We did it. Almost….