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by Jim Price

Paige Mead playing tug with yellow Lab Helki

Compared to her classmates, Paige Mead of Kansas City, MO, has a fair amount of sight. The central vision in her left eye is completely gone, but for now the right eye is doing fair, thanks to monthly injections. "Because I still have some sight, I figured there was no way I could get a guide dog," she said, echoing the misconception of many would-be guide dog users. The truth is, if they are declared legally blind by their ophthalmologist, they may become eligible for a dog from Guide Dogs for the Blind.

From the first day in the dormitory, Mead displayed a willingness to learn and get it all right. "I didn’t even know the proper commands," she said, late in week two. "But the people here want you to succeed. They don’t coddle you, but they help you get it right. Between them and my dog, I made it. Helki is so smart. I remember the first curb we came to and she looked up at me for direction. If a curb isn’t marked [painted] I can’t distinguish it [from the sidewalk or street,] so I got a lot of confidence from working with her. She makes me feel a lot more comfortable when we are out working than I would be with just a cane." Helki is a large yellow Lab.

Mead said she struggled at first amid the noise and traffic of downtown Portland. "The downtown routes are very nerve-wracking, very over-stimulating. You never know what’s going to happen. I’m much better now that Helki and I are more in tune. Once I got the rhythm of it, things were easier. They taught me not to over think things and just find that rhythm and go."

As with many students, Mead suffered from mild "shin splints" midway through the first week. "I walk a lot at home, so I felt like a wimp," she smiled, her curly blond hair bouncing. "It’s the speed that wears you out. At the end of each day, I was tired." She said the GDB nurses are skilled at treating the problem.

Mead suffers from "presumed ocular histoplasmosis," a condition that came on very quickly in her late 20s. Ironically, she had received Lasik surgery earlier that year and, "I had about six months of perfect vision, right before I realized something was wrong." Doctors have discovered that the same treatment they use for certain types of macular degeneration works on her condition in some people. The problem is the drug is not yet approved by the insurance industry for her disease. Monthly injections are $2,400. "Fortunately, I was able to qualify for a program offered by the pharmaceutical company and there is no cost to me," she said.

Despite a double degree in English and psychology from Avila University in Kansas City, Missouri, Mead has struggled to find relative employment since losing much of her vision. She is determined to push ahead, however, and last year enrolled in a rehabilitation program at Alphapointe Association for the Blind in Kansas City. She hoped it would land her a job, since the non-profit company has more than 175 employees and offers a variety of services from a call center to plastics manufacturing, but instead she found encouragement and new skills.

"They offer a lot of programs there, from orientation and mobility to Braille to living skills." She said they helped her in ways she didn’t anticipate, especially with networking and learning about other services that were available, such as Guide Dogs for the Blind. "That week I went home and got online," she said. "They recommended this company and one other, but I read so many positive comments about GDB that it was the obvious choice."

Back home she intends to pursue work as a technical writer. She said she will be starting an on-line class to shore up her grammar and then take on additional training to get herself job-ready. And she figured all of that will be easier with her new partner. "Kansas City is a lot like Portland, just not quite as noisy. I’m sure Helki will do just fine there and I can’t wait to get her home. My mom is ecstatic about me getting Helki. It’s like having a new family member. And as soon as I get home, Helki will have her own Facebook page."