by Jim Price
Alice Goetschius is a practical sort. Ever since she was 12 she knew something was wrong with her eyes, but she didn't let it worry her too much. She was 34 when her ophthalmologist finally told her she had retinitis pigmentosa and she would eventually lose her eyesight. "I walked outside his office, looked around and nothing had changed yet, so I told myself to just get on with living my life," she said. "I might be blind someday but right now I'm not."
That attitude took her all the way through retirement. After 34 years of working for the phone company, her vision was slowly deteriorating all those years, she was in her 60s before she finally decided it was time to start learning about being blind. She enrolled in orientation and mobility classes at the Oregon Blind Commission in Portland. She learned a lot, including cooking and even Braille. "I don't need the Braille yet," she said, since she has some central vision, "but I might some day, so I figured I might as well learn it." There's that practical side.
She even cooked while blindfolded, for a whole semester, just because she knew she might someday need to know how. She also took woodworking and is quick to tell about her almost-finished six-and-a-half foot tall curio cabinet. It has glass doors and shelves, is lighted, and it makes her very proud. "My woodworking instructor is totally blind and a great teacher; really strict about safety," she said with a smile. "He taught us table saws, chop saws, sanders and just about every other woodworking tool. And he has all his fingers."
It was at the Oregon Blind Commission when she first was introduced to the idea of a guide dog. "An instructor from Guide Dogs for the Blind brought three dogs to one of our classes," she said. "It was like getting to kick the tires, so to speak. We actually got to take hold of a harness and walk about six blocks while he held the leash. It was thrilling! In an instant, I went from scared to feeling completely free."
Within a few days she was online at guidedogs.com, applying for her own dog.
As she told her story recently at the GDB student lounge in Gresham, Oregon, she was relaxing with her new best friend, yellow Lab Panama. "She's perfect for me," she said. "Just the right size and very, very sweet. When we first met she was just wiggly all over. We were both nervous—but already we are a good team and getting better every day. She is the only girl in the class, by the way, with five boy dogs, and she is a big flirt. It's really funny to watch."
Alice said she loves the new two-week curriculum and smaller classes at GDB. She especially appreciated the individual attention she got. One afternoon in downtown Portland she and her instructor taught Panama to take her right to the front door of her credit union. "She is so smart! I can't see at all at night and last night we had our fist night route. It was amazing! I told her okay, girl, I can't see, so I'm trusting you to not run me off a curb or into the street. She was perfect!"
Alice credits her husband Roger for helping her get by despite her steadily declining vision. "Most people never knew. Curbs were my downfall and he would just casually offer his elbow and guide me along. But now I can be on my own when ever I want. The best way I can describe having a dog is freedom. Guide Dogs for the Blind has given me back my freedom."