By Jim Price
For more than 30 years Ed Daniels lived his dream. Like a medieval troubadour he traveled the world playing music. From Germany and France to Japan, Korea and most countries in between, Daniels entertained at nightclubs, casinos, hotel bars and colleges. "I played everything from heavy metal to country," he smiled. "Whatever paid."
During that time he'd been able to control his diabetes, but in 2001 it struck a mighty blow. It was Christmas Eve morning and he carefully woke his wife. "I don't want to startle you, Patty, but I can't see a thing." It had only been nine months since the first inkling something was wrong with his vision. During that time doctors operated 11 times but nothing worked. He hasn't seen more than dark and light since that fateful day.
A couple years later he found himself in a rehab program for blind veterans in Tacoma. "At that time things were very dark," he said recently at his Lacey, Washington home. "I truly thought that my life as I knew it was over. Amazingly, that all changed in just one day."
It was a visit by a blind volunteer and his Golden Retriever representing Guide Dogs for the Blind. "I remember thinking, 'Look at this guy. He's mobile; he's hustling around the room," he said. "I had to find out more. I called Guide Dogs for the Blind that day and they sent staff member Nick Terrones out to interview me. He checked out my home, the neighborhood, and how well I got around with a cane. He spent a lot of time getting to know my needs and my lifestyle. Soon I was on a plane headed to San Rafael, California and the main campus. And that was truly a life-changing experience."
"I remember standing on the soft grass, birds singing in the trees, the warm sun on my face. It was 78 degrees there in California. When I left Washington, it was 28 degrees and snowing. It was good that it was nice because I knew I was going to be there for four weeks learning how to deal with a dog as a guide. As it turned out, my dog had to learn how to deal with me. She was trained -- I wasn't.
"You are there for a few days before you actually get your dog," he said. "But once you do, it's like night and day. Not only are you immediately bonding with your dog, you are immediately experiencing how this dog is going to change your life."
Daniels said he'll never forget meeting his new partner and how quickly they bonded. "I'm not a small guy and had told them I needed a big, strong dog ," he said. Then I reached out and touched her and I could feel how big she was. She had broad shoulders and I could tell she was in fighting shape. After a couple of licks she settled in at my side. It was as if she knew I needed her help. It was that quick. We went back to my room and when I casually put my hand on the bed, she jumped up on it. I said, 'Wait a minute, I sleep on the bed, not you!' I pointed to a sleeping pad next to the bed and she has slept next to my bed ever since."
Daniels said he needed every bit of the four weeks at the San Rafael campus. "At first it set me back on my heels. I couldn't totally trust my safety to the dog and I kept trying to just use my own senses -- until I got in trouble and she stopped me in the nick of time. I needed time to become comfortable with her. But eating, sleeping and going everywhere with her really helped us bond. I was never apart from her for more than 30 minutes, and that continued after we got home. I think it was a year before we were ever separated. And I couldn't be happier with the freedom she gives me.
"Gracious watches out for me. She watches out for strangers, for cars, obstacles. And I get around so much faster. With a cane I'm lumbering along, trying to find the curbs and other obstacles. With her I don't feel any boundaries. If we go into a restaurant, movie theater, or doctor's office, all I have to do is tell her to find me a chair and she does it. She's amazing!"
They've been together now for several years, and Daniels has had some serious health challenges with his diabetes, resulting in the amputation of part of his leg. "It's hard, but you simply don't have a choice," he said. "It's slowed me down for now, but I will have a prosthetic leg in a couple months. And I'm doing just what most people would do. Moving forward."
For Ed Daniels, moving forward includes playing in two church bands. It means mentoring his three adult daughters, and volunteering at a hospital counseling stroke patients. And right now it means learning how he and Gracious can best maneuver together with a wheelchair.
"It's been an uphill battle," he said. "But having Gracious has made everything so much easier. Getting a Guide Dog was like getting a breath of fresh air. Gracious has totally changed my life."