Up until the age of 9 I was a happy healthy and fully sighted child. An over the counter cough medicine I took caused an allergic reaction and led to a life threatening condition called Stevens-Johnson syndrome (SJS). SJS affects the skin and mucus membranes and my skin kind of burned from the inside out leaving me with a lot of scarring. I spent some months in hospital fighting for my life and recovered slowly over the following months and years. The worst affected areas were my eyes and lungs. Throughout my teenage years I had surgeries to try and correct my scarred corneas, but at the age of 17 it was discovered that I had glaucoma and the damage to my optic nerves was irreversible.

I gradually lost my sight completely between the ages of 19 and 20.

Adjusting to sight loss took me many years. I tried to ignore it for a long time and focus on college. I was resistant to having to use a long cane and struggled hugely with my new identity. I was very lucky to have a fantastic support network of family and friends who guided me and brought me everywhere. Although I also felt very isolated and frustrated being so dependant when I was used to being able to do things for myself.

I had to learn to be very patient as I would have to wait until others were free to help me and bring me places.

After a number of years, I received counselling and I began to accept my blindness and started to feel more confident and less afraid to be seen to be blind. I received training with a long cane, however I never really took to using it. I never felt fully safe and as I am totally blind I found it difficult to orientate myself. I avoided crossing roads with the cane as I couldn’t walk in a straight line.  It’s difficult to get very far without crossing a road.

I always knew I would get a Guide Dog, but I think it took until I was comfortable with myself and felt confident to go out alone, without always relying on the support of friends, to realise I was ready for a Guide Dog.

I also waited until I was finished my masters in college so I could put my full attention into taking on the responsibility and the new challenge.

I found the application process very interesting as the Guide Dog trainers really look at your lifestyle and what kind of environment you live in and try and match you with a dog who is most suitable for your needs.

I was 30 when I was matched with my beautiful Labradoodle Uri.

I remember feeling nervous and excited the day I went down to the Guide Dog centre in Cork to meet Uri. It felt quite surreal that when I left the centre that day I had a successful match and the next time I would see Uri would be a month later for training.

I found the residential training an incredible experience. At times it was challenging and overwhelming, learning to put your trust for guidance and safety in this four-legged creature, but the trainers were fantastic and so supportive. We also learned about caring for our dog’s health, grooming, obedience and issues around access.

After the residential training, there was follow up training back in Galway. It was very new for me as I hadn’t been independent in Galway with a cane and hadn’t lived here when I was sighted so every new route I learned with Uri was and still is an entirely new experience.

Over the years and with each new milestone I have reached with Uri it’s like opening the world a little more to me.

I remember my first milestone was being able to walk to the post office in Salthill and post a card to my mom. I remember thinking, the last time I walked to a post office on my own was when I was 18. I felt so emotional and I think that was when I really realised how Uri was changing my life and bringing back something I thought I would never have again, my freedom. Other memorable firsts were walking through Galway city for the first time and making my way to the bus station to get a bus home to Clare independently.

I still get a real buzz of excitement and achievement with each new route we learn as it adds another outlet to my life.

Over the years the enjoyment of being able to go for a walk just for the pleasure of walking and having that time to myself is another gift I have from Uri. For a time after I got Uri, I would stick to routes that were to specific destinations as I built up my confidence in him and myself, so there was still quite a lot of concentration required, but as you build up that bond with your dog you begin to work more intuitively.

It’s amazing how the very basic yet hugely important things in life like being able to step outside your front door and pop to the shop or go for a leisurely walk are things we don’t realise we take for granted until they are taken away from you and your world shrinks and you feel like a burden for the smallest of things.

Having Uri means the world to me. I don’t think I can explain how I could nearly burst with love for him.

He has opened my world so much and has enabled me to feel so much freer and more independent. He is full of charm, fun and curiosity and is like a celebrity wherever he goes. I joke with friends that Uri is like my four-legged son, but it really feels that way. He is also incredibly calming and gentle. I work as a psychotherapist and Uri has a lovely effect in the therapy room and can be a real ice breaker for clients.

As Uri is turning 8 soon I know that we will be coming to the end of our working life together in the next year or so and the thought of it is heart-breaking. I never thought the bond I would form with him would be as strong as it is. I’m going to make the most of the rest of our working lives together with lots of walks and fun before a well-deserved retirement awaits him.

It’s thanks to the wonderful Staff and Volunteers at Irish Guide Dogs and the kind donations of the public that make it possible for me to have this wonderful life changing dog in my life.

Cara Gibbons

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