Being a Guide Dog owner is such a privilege and positive experience.
I was born with a condition called Peter’s Anomaly which caused cataracts, and I had to have corneal transplants when I was just two weeks old. Considering I was only 5 lbs 11oz at birth, I count myself lucky to have had the skills of eminent surgeon Prof. Michael O’Keeffe in Temple Street at that time.
Unfortunately, Peter’s Anomaly can often come with other underlying health issues and during that time I was also diagnosed with Congenital Heart Disease (CHD).
Despite both corneal transplants being successful, pressure built up in my right eye. It eventually became too painful and I ended up getting my first prosthetic eye when I was two years old. At that stage, I was registered blind though thankfully I had some functional vision.
I was the youngest of three and growing up I was lucky enough to have my brother and sister to look out for me. I spent a lot of time in Our Lady’s Hospital, Crumlin having surgery and other procedures on my heart, but with my family’s love and care these experiences were mostly positive.
My sight difficulties did not impact on me hugely at that stage, as I was pretty much using a wheelchair for all journeys. I had major heart surgery in 2004 and luckily haven’t had to use a wheelchair since.
With my new lease of life, I began to use the white cane. However, in secondary school I felt that it drew the kind of attention that I didn’t want. I felt different, alienated from classmates, and denied key social activities like going out at weekends, going on school trips and even going to my Debs!
Through the latter end of secondary school and in college I continued to use my cane. Yes, I found it helpful, but it was isolating. People tended to avoid and ignore me, or treat me as if I could not speak for myself when interacting with me. These instances affected my self-esteem and one embarrassing incident in particular, at the beginning of my final year, when my cane got stuck in a bin, made my mind up to apply straight away for a Guide Dog.
So, in October 2013 I had my first Guide Dog assessment meeting. All aspects of my life were taken into account including my health, and I discussed some regular routes I would be using if I got a Guide Dog. I was afraid that I might not be eligible but the instructor who visited was hopeful and reassured me. Because of health issues, the type of Guide Dog recommended for me was a breed that would not shed.
After a couple of months hoping and waiting, that life changing call eventually came. A standard poodle had just finished training and we were matched! A poodle? At first, I thought it was a joke. all I could picture was the little French poodles. I had never heard of a poodle Guide Dog before. I will never forget that call. Suddenly, this dreary January day was full of excitement and anticipation.
Truly, it was love at first sight. Buttons was definitely my perfect match as we met for the first time on Valentine’s Day! I thought our first walk was amazing, but little did I know how tuned in to my needs Buttons would become. The three weeks I spent training with him in Ballincollig were incredible. The staff were so supportive and by the time I took him home we were the perfect team.
My family, neighbours and friends could not believe the change in me. Buttons and I were going everywhere together. People got used to us in the shops, the bank, the library and even the hairdressers!
Instead of people avoiding me as they did when I had the cane, they now chatted to me about Buttons and other things; this in turn made me feel more included in my local community.
Although I only had Buttons in college with me for the last term of final year, he was invaluable for my confidence and success. I was able to use my experience of both the cane and Guide Dog as a basis for my thesis which was “White Cane or Guide Dog: A Case Study of blind and visually impaired people and the conditions and societal attitudes which determine the usability of these mobility aids.” I was so proud when Buttons led me to the podium later that year to receive my degree.
I knew I wanted a Guide Dog, but I had no idea how invaluable he would become. Buttons is not just my guide, he’s my closest companion. If I’m not feeling well on a walk, he will instinctively slow down, and if there is any hint of danger or unease, he is always alert and protective. He has a fabulous personality all of his own. When he switches from work mode, he is a lovable scamp who has become part of the family. Everybody loves him.
So far, we have had a lot of adventures together, from rock concerts to art galleries, from beach walks to holidays in the sun. Buttons is now six years old and hopefully he will continue to work for at least another few years. When I need to get another Guide Dog my family have promised to look after Buttons for me. I could never bear to part with him.
Fundraising is an important part of the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind. It is a great opportunity for friends and family to give something back for such a vital service. Through these events and activities, I have had the opportunity to bring my story to many secondary school students, as well as getting involved in personal challenges such as the Awesome Walls Challenge. The support from staff in the Centre is ongoing and there is always a friendly voice at the end of the phone if I have a query or problem.
Being a Guide Dog owner is such a privilege and positive experience. Buttons has enhanced my life in so many ways and I will always be grateful for that.