Thirty year gap between walking with a Guide Dog | Guide Dogs NSW/ACT

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13 July, 2016

Thirty year gap between walking with a Guide Dog

Cathy sitting on a chair with her Guide Dog, Scout, in front of her.

Scout proves to be the perfect match for Cathy

Some 30 years after receiving her first Guide Dog, Cathy Egan put the harness on her second Guide Dog and immediately knew she had found the perfect match.

Cathy, who was born with congenital cataracts, received her first Guide Dog, Orissa, when she was in her 20s. During this period her vision stabilised to the point that she didn't need a Guide Dog to assist her anymore, so she decided to make her way through life without the use of a mobility aid.

Prior to receiving her Guide Dog, she had endured years of operations on her eyes. "I had my first operation when I was three months old and I stopped counting at 20 operations," Cathy said. "Then when I was 10 on Christmas day I was in agony and my parents realised it was my eyes. I was diagnosed with Glaucoma that Christmas."

In her late 20s, Cathy lost one of her eyes, but with her philosophy of "you are only limited by the limitations you put on yourself" she never let her vision loss stand in the way of her dreams.

So after deciding she no longer required a Guide Dog, Cathy embarked on a 17 year career as a nursing assisting and worked in nursing homes and a private hospital mostly in the neurological services department.

The diagnosis that turned her world upside down

Then about three years ago she woke up and could hardly see. "I went to the mirror as my eye was really stinging and everything was blurry. I worked out the white part was red. I immediately thought I had conjunctivitis and booked an appointment to see my specialist," she said.

The prognosis was worse, her body was fighting cellulitis of the eye exacerbated by the fact she had an artificial pump in her eye to control the glaucoma. "So in layman's terms my immune system was attacking my eye. The doctor put me on massive doses of Cortisone and I was prescribed chemotherapy to stop my body fighting," Cathy said.

"My world had been turned upside down. I couldn't read, I was sensitive to light and everything was blurry. I needed to learn everything from cooking and cleaning to how to get around safely," she said.

Cathy now has to wear 90 percent block out sunglasses and has had her windows tinted at home. She has some colour perception, although this can be muddled, and is unable to read as the text is too blurry.

To complicate matters further, a sinus infection resulted in a tear in Cathy's inner ear which left her with a significant deficit in her hearing and destroyed her balance on her right side.

Reconnecting with Guide Dogs

As a competent long cane user, Cathy had previously used her well-developed echolocation skills to move around the city, but her hearing changes meant she could no longer rely on this when listening for oncoming traffic. Her balance issues also made it more difficult to walk in a straight line using her long cane.

So she decided to reconnect with Guide Dogs, the leading provider of Guide Dogs and other services that enable people with impaired vision to get around their communities safely and independently, to find out if she was suitable for a Guide Dog. "Luckily the instructor I worked with when I had my first Guide Dog was still there and I felt comfortable talking to him about my situation," Cathy said. "I wanted to get a Guide Dog for the right reasons. Safety was my main concern, as much as I love dogs," she said.

That's when Scout, a beautiful blonde Labrador, who cost $35,000 to breed, raise and train, walked into her life. "It was amazing how much I remembered. It wasn't odd at all to walk with a Guide Dog again, it just felt natural and I realised it was the best decision and thought to myself I know we are going to be okay together," Cathy said.

"I'm so glad I have her. I wasn't able to get around much due to my vision and hearing loss and now I can walk at my nursing pace again and go from pram ramp to pram ramp with ease," she said. "I feel like I have freedom again."

Cathy can walk up to 11 kilometres a day and the specialists have told her this is the best thing she can do. "Luckily Scout loves to work. She walks with pride," she said.

As a volunteer for St Vincent de Paul Society and RAPS (Recreation and Peer Support), Cathy has found those that she visits also love meeting Scout. "I go in with Scout on harness and then when she is settled I take the harness off for a very short time and let everyone have a pat. I then put the harness back on and explain she is now working and shouldn't be distracted," she said.

Looking forward to the future

Cathy has a number of goals she would like to achieve over the next couple of months, including a trip to visit her mum in northern NSW for her 81st birthday. She will work with a Guide Dogs Orientation and Mobility Specialist to learn and familiarise herself with the travel route.

Then it's off to Melbourne to see her sister in December. She is also planning a trip to the USA.

Cathy said she has also enjoyed meeting other Guide Dog handlers. She now meets up with one each fortnight at a park where they both let their dogs run free and enjoy a bit of downtime. "It's important for the dogs to have social interaction and just be dogs," she said.

She is looking forward to the future with Scout. "Guide Dogs have allowed me to reach my goals and maintain my independence. If you can conquer mobility you can conquer anything," Cathy said. "My confidence prior to receiving Scout was low but now I know I can get from point A to point B easily."

Each year, Guide Dogs Orientation & Mobility Specialists work with about 4,000 people of all ages to help them achieve their mobility goals.

As the organisation receives less than two percent of its funding needs from the government, Guide Dogs is financially dependent on the generosity of the people of NSW and the ACT to provide services to people who are blind or vision impaired at no cost.

Every day 28 Australians are diagnosed with uncorrectable vision loss, including nine who become blind.