By Jim Price
She was in her early 30s when her life-long diabetes struck its mightiest blow. Suddenly, a black cloud formed in front of one eye – one of her retinas had hemorrhaged. Laser treatments helped for awhile, but the hemorrhaging continued. She was only losing her peripheral vision, however, so things weren't all that bad. And for years, nobody knew but her husband.
"For some reason I was embarrassed," she explained. Sheila Shulleeta, 59, was a teacher at the time. "One day I was scheduled into a sixth-grade classroom for a lesson on problem solving," she said, shaking her head at the memory. As she walked toward the front of the classroom she bumped into a student's science project and sent it flying in pieces to the floor. "I was horrified," she remembered. "I apologized profusely to the child, promising to come in after school and help him rebuild it."
Still trying to get to the front of the room, Shulleeta's next memory was of sprawling to her knees after tripping over the lanky legs of another student. She somehow got through the 30-minute lesson, but on the way out she knocked over a large vase of flowers on the teacher's desk. She marched immediately to the office and feigned illness so she could get to the safety of her house.
"That night, after crying and crying, I told my husband I just couldn't do it anymore. It was too embarrassing." Her hands twisted together as she talked, the memory sharp and clear. She related her story while taking a short break from training at the Oregon campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind. She was there to get her second Guide Dog, yellow Lab Tulsa, who waited patiently on the floor at her side.
"Finally, my husband pointed out that this illness was no reason to be embarrassed. It was not a shameful thing," she said. "Of course he was right, and that night I called the teacher and scheduled a few minutes the following day to talk to her class. I arrived with my cane, told them the whole story, and you could have heard a pin drop. It was so powerful. Those kids instantly became my friends for life. From then on they were all eager to help me and were quick to remind me if I went anywhere without my cane."
Soon other teachers were calling and asking her to come to their classes to talk about vision loss. "I had spent so much time and energy trying to maintain this stupid secret. Thanks to those kids, it was the most powerful thing that could have happened to me at that time. It was so freeing. And now you can't shut me up!" she exclaimed, her bright smile beaming. She's part of the GDB Speakers Bureau Program and admits she loves to talk about her life and her Guide Dog. She also volunteers at a cancer ward and recently was certified as a Master Gardner. Twice a week or so she is at the extension agent office answering phone-in gardening questions.
"Jazzy was my first guide," she explained, "and she is still at our house. We retired her a couple months ago after she guided for about eight years." Tiny tears pop from her eyes as soon as Jazzy's name came up. "She's a Lab/Golden Cross, all black, tall, 73 pounds, and it was love at first sight. She is the most energetic, loving, compassionate dog, and a really, really good guide. We have done everything together, from cruises to train trips to plane rides. She is my miracle dog. She had major surgery on both back legs and was still able to guide after she healed. She is amazing."
Ironically, long before she had any vision problems, Shulleeta taught in a school district just a few blocks from GDB's Oregon campus. "I was there when they opened and I remember thinking how cool that was and what a good tool that would be in teaching my kids about blind people. I never dreamed I would be one of them."
She said she can't say enough good things about Guide Dogs. "They give you so much," she said, nodding her head in affirmation. "There is complete support, in terms of making sure your dog is working and keeping you safe. They helped out with the cost of surgery. And they are constantly evolving. Some large organizations will say we've always done it this way. But not GDB. They are constantly doing research. The classes in 2010 are different than they were in 2002. They are much more tailored to your individual needs. There is a lot more working and less talking. I really like that. There is almost nothing they won't do to make this training as productive as possible."
When it was time to head out on another training run, Shulleeta and Tulsa both leaped to their feet. "She loves to work," she grinned. "When she is working, she is so energized. Yesterday we were on a bus in downtown Portland and she was so excited. It was like we had given her a steak bone. GDB has done it again. They sure know how to pick the perfect match."