by Jim Price
He knew something was happening to his vision but he wasn’t worried enough even to mention it to his parents. Tommy Leung was a busy college student in Vancouver, BC, and he figured, even if something was seriously wrong, doctors could fix it.
Each morning when he awoke, he checked his ability to see by how much of the light fixture on the ceiling was visible. Christmas morning, 2000, he awoke to discover he couldn’t see the fixture at all. Irreversible glaucoma, he soon discovered, was stealing his sight. Within months, he was completely blind.
"I was very depressed," he said, flashing a quick grimace at the memory. "It felt as if my life was over. Running into a wall isn’t funny after the fifth or sixth time you do it. For months I didn’t even want to get out of bed."
He had pretty much given up on himself. Fortunately, his family and friends had not.
Leung was born in Hong Kong and immigrated to Canada with his family when he was 13. He is active in his church and his father recently became an ordained minister. "My friends from church were great," he said. "I didn’t want to go out, so they hung out at my house. We played cards or watched videos." And his mother quit her job to be with him. "She was amazing. She made sure I got out of bed and she took me places, even when I didn’t want to go. She was the strong one."
Eventually, he realized, he was betraying the trust of his family and friends if he didn’t at least try. He forced himself to get out and experience life. His mom set him up with orientation and mobility training. He got some counseling for the depression and soon was headed back to school. He also found a Bible passage that gave him comfort. "I’m paraphrasing here," he said, "but Isaiah 42:16 says that ‘God doesn’t forsake blind people. He will guide them to a different path. He will go before them and flatten the bumps and straighten the curves.’ I was really encouraged by that."
It was at about that time that he first began thinking about getting a guide dog. "I was allergic to dogs," he explained, "so I didn’t think that was even a possibility. My cousin had dogs and I would have breathing difficulties when I visited." He decided to give it one more chance and visited the SPCA kennel in Vancouver, where he was allowed to spend time playing with some Labradors. "It was wonderful. I had no reaction to the dogs."
In 2003, about two years after he had lost his sight, he applied to Guide Dogs for the Blind. In order to qualify for training, he would have to demonstrate his ability to travel independently in his home area. When Leung was practicing the route he would take to his church, he slammed into a post and bloodied his nose. "I was so nervous!" he exclaimed. But everything went fine during his home visit with the GDB representative. "I passed the test and within weeks I was right here at the Oregon campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind to get my first Guide Dog, Louella." She was a very light-colored yellow Lab so he dubbed her his "white chocolate Lab." She guided him for more than seven years and is now the favorite family pet.
As Leung talked, snuggled at his side was his second Guide Dog, Macbeth, a strapping young black Lab. Leung was again at the Oregon campus, halfway through the final week of the two-week course. They were about to head out on a traffic training route. A GDB instructor would approach them from a driveway in a nearly silent hybrid car to test the team’s ability to react appropriately. Leung was worried about how his family would react to his first Guide Dog, Louella, being in their home. "In the Chinese culture," he explained, "People do not usually allow dogs indoors. She took care of that, snuggling up to each of my parents and my sister. It didn’t take her long to convert them.
"But my grandmother was a different story," he continued. "At first, she followed Louella around, sweeping up dog hair. She is an early riser, working in the kitchen before anyone else gets up. Louella joined her there and stayed just far enough away to keep my grandmother happy. Soon my grandmother was talking to Louella every morning in Chinese and Louella was patiently sitting there listening. It didn’t take long to convert her, too, and we credit my grandmother with teaching Louella Chinese."
Thanks to the counseling he got, Leung developed an interest in psychology and decided to take it up as a career. He is in a master’s program and hopes to eventually go to China and work at a school for the blind.
"I’ve come a long way since that Christmas morning," he said with a broad smile, "Thanks to my family, friends, and a great Guide Dog. And I can’t wait to introduce them all to Macbeth."