by Jim Price
He waited more than 15 years to get a guide dog. One of the reasons he had to wait so long was that up until this time, his wife, Sylvia, would not touch even a stuffed animal, let alone a real one.
When Sylvia was 2 years old, she was a child of poverty living in a suburban slum of Calcutta, India. Her memories are vague, but she recalls that suddenly a tiger sprang from the jungle and had her in its mouth. She also remembers the crushing feeling and the pain. Instantly, her vision was gone forever.
Her father got her to a hospital, barely alive, and left her there. He never returned. Three years passed and finally, an American couple found her in an orphanage and adopted her. Today, 30 years later, she is a wife, mother of two, and is about to graduate from medical transcription school in Idaho Falls. Sylvia Bernert has come a long way and nobody is more proud of her than her husband, Jason.
"I guess I’ve thought about getting a Guide Dog for years; it just wasn’t possible with my wife’s history," he said. "But she has come a long way. Finally she got to the point where she said I should go for it." And he did. Recently, he was at the Oregon campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind for the two-week class with Breeze, a large, friendly female yellow Lab.
"I actually started the class with another dog, a beautiful black Lab," he explained. "I loved him immediately, but he just didn’t fit my pace." Jason, 36, could see he needed a faster dog and he said the staff handled the situation with professionalism and poise. "They were really great about it and they made the transition go very smoothly. They sure do know what they are doing. And now, I have Breeze and I already love her to death. She is so well trained; I consider it a real gift, a blessing, to have a dog like this one."
As he talked, Jason unconsciously patted Breeze’s head as she napped beside him. They were at the Gresham Lounge, a satellite building GDB uses as a home base for traffic routes in the downtown section of the small Portland suburb, a few miles from the Oregon campus. They had just finished "traffic training" with a hybrid, driven by GDB instructors backed out of a driveway, interrupting their walk. The training shows students how their dogs will react when vehicles get too close. "She did perfectly," said Jason with a grin.
Back home in Idaho Falls she will get plenty of practice. When Jason isn’t busy looking after 10-year-old Stetson and an 8-year-old JanaLyn, he’s off at one of his three jobs. He has been a trained and licensed massage therapist since his early 20s. His company is Out of Sight Massage Therapy. He also is a representative for a nutritional supplement company and he sells pre-paid legal services. Between family, work and church, he said, he doesn’t have much free time, but when he does, he enjoys getting together with friends.
Jason said the one word to describe his new life with a Guide Dog is freedom. "When you have a Guide Dog you just go. There isn’t anything holding you back. Breeze gives me the opportunity to get where I need to go safely and quickly. It’s a real neat feeling."
He was surprised by how fast he began to trust Breeze. "You bond with these dogs so quickly. You see how they are working hard to serve you and that makes you love them and want to take care of them. Having a guide doesn’t compare with being able to drive again, but I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have one. I can’t wait to get her home to meet my family."
Back home in Idaho, Sylvia is waiting. "I’m a little skeptical," she chuckled on the phone, "but I feel like I can do this for Jason. The kids are really excited." Does she see herself ever getting her own Guide Dog? "I don’t think so, but you never know," she said. "Maybe this is what it will take for me to finally get over my fears."