Blindness & Faith Healing: an Old Street Performer’s Musings

As a blind woman who worked as a street performer for eleven years, I have experienced many wonderful moments with the public. I’ve also experienced some awkward, painful and infuriating ones. The ministrations of faith healers were particularly aggravating. Before writing this piece, I sought comments from other blind people. Their opinions are as diverse as blind people themselves. No one wanted to be named. Here are pictures from a life that I view as worthy of celebration, not healing.

Donna with her new yellow Lab guide dog, Mo, and rescued strawberry-blonde tabby Goofus: photo by Rich Hill.

Disclaimer

Donnna W. Hill  - with Hunter, a black Lab & her 4th guide dog - donates The Heart of Applebutter Hill to Dir. Jesse Johnson of the Towanda Public Library: photo by Rich Hill.

I was born legally but not totally blind in the ‘50s, when being blind was less acceptable than it is today. I was raised in a working-class, Christian family, where the undercurrents of belief suggested two seemingly contradictory perspectives. First, I got the impression that my parents viewed my blindness as a punishment. Second, there was some element of the healing power of Jesus.

Neither of these perspectives was spelled out. I just picked them up the way children get their ideas about where they fit into the worlds of family, neighborhood and church. My spiritual life has undergone many twists and turns since then.

Evolution of a Perspective

My school days were filled with bullying. Some teachers thought I shouldn’t be in public school, while others were sure I was faking my vision loss. My dreams of doing something with music, fostered by an early spiritual experience, were evaporating in the light of irrefutable evidence that I wasn’t qualified.

My voice was good enough for the second grade chorus, but I couldn’t get the hang of the risers in less than thirty seconds and was dismissed. At eleven, I suspected that I had a mental deficiency causing me to block my own vision. And, not for the last time, I considered suicide.

By twelve, my piano sheet music was too complicated to memorize using a bright light and my deteriorating vision. Had God changed His mind? Or, perhaps, I needed to do something else first — get normal sight. It was obviously impossible to be successful without it.

Years before hearing televangelists, I somehow knew I had to believe it would happen. Every morning for months, before I opened my eyes, I thanked God for restoring my sight, imagining the bright and detailed world that awaited me. My eyes, however, opened to dimness and confusion.

Progress and Compromise

At fourteen, I was devastated without music in my life. I asked for and received a guitar. Though I was too shy to share them, I started writing songs, beginning the inexorable link in my life between music and language.

In Junior High and High School, the bullying became more physical. The increase in work coupled with declining central vision necessitated a prioritizing of my work — literature and science were in; history and math out.

What About Braille?

Braille and recorded books were never discussed. I was legally blind in a world where it was more important to read and navigate with your eyes, regardless of how many mistakes you made, how much time it took, how sick you got or how many other things fell by the wayside, than to learn nonvisual skills.

The overt bullying stopped when I entered college. Nevertheless, I had lost the reading vision in my better eye that summer and was ill-equipped to take full advantage of the college experience. For the first time, however, I used recorded books and readers.

What Provoked This Dredging Up of Childhood Misfortunes?

I use LinkedIn to promote my novel, The Heart of Applebutter Hill, as well as vision loss issues. I have over 5,000 connections and a rather inclusive approach to invitations. If someone invites me to connect, I usually accept. My profile makes it clear that I am blind, and I assume they’ve read it. Though they may be sighted, their family and friends might include someone who is dealing with vision loss.

One of my connections wrote the following message to me.

Hi Donna, as you read this message instantly receive your sites in Jesus name. Amen.

Reawakening the Dream

Donna Sitting with her first guide dog Simba (a black Lab) in Great Smokies National Park in '81: photo by Rich Hill.

After graduating from college, I tried to make up the deficit. I trained with my first guide dog and learned Braille. I would pursue my dream of being a self-supporting musician — initially, as a street performer.

lackawanna trail high library (Factoryville, PA): Donna W. Hill on sofa w librarian kelly hopkins; 4 students (l-r: Taylor Selwood,Jordan Flynn, Ally Decker and Annika Kongvold ) stand behind. Jordan holds Donna's novel The Heart of Applebutter Hill & Donna's black Lab guide dog, Hunter, watches from the floor: photo by rich hill.

I had my own apartment, kept an organic garden complete with a compost pile, baked whole grain bread and made everything from soup and spaghetti sauce to hummus, pesto and spanakopita. I started performing at schools, churches and other venues. I wanted my audiences to have a comfortable experience with a blind person and learn a bit about how we do things. I released the first two of my three albums — Rainbow Colors and Harvest.

“If I had healed you back then,” said the voice I thought of as God, “You would have never known that blindness didn’t have to limit you.”

A Street Performer’s Experience

Between ’78 and ’90, I worked regularly as a street performer in Philadelphia’s Suburban Station, a center city train station serving commuters from the five-county area. I also had a permit to perform at Penn’s Landing on the Delaware River. I sang mostly original material and met people from all walks of life who shared their joys and sorrows with me. It was a transformative experience.

Of course there were unpleasantries along the way. I was robbed twice. A classical guitarist, who believed I was in his spot, threatened to break my fingers. And, a deranged soul tried to spray me with Lysol … to disinfect me from AIDS. Well, you get the idea.

Some people stopped to tell me about the healing power of Jesus. I tried politeness, but the rage and humiliation boiling inside me occasionally burst through with comments like, “What makes you think I want to be healed?.” Why couldn’t they accept me the way I am? Did they really think that blindness was the worst part of my life?

When I performed at local folk clubs, however, the story I told most often, which always got a laugh, involved a group of non-Christian zealots. They explained that all I needed to do to get my sight restored was to eat nothing but raw foods for the rest of my life. I patiently listened and then said dryly, “I don’t think it would be worth it.”

Back to My Overzealous LinkedIn Connection

His message made me astonishingly angry. I wanted to explode. But, it would have been counterproductive. I considered ignoring the comment, but the intervening decades since early adulthood had left me at the point where I could say this.

I hope you will not be offended by this response. I long ago stopped asking Jesus to restore my sight. It seems rather selfish to have my sight restored when so many others remain blind, and others still, who currently have sight, will lose their sight without knowing that life without sight can — with some adaptive equipment and skills — be happy, productive and fulfilling. My purpose on earth is to spread this information, not to run from the challenges and opportunities that blindness brings.

Other Opinions & Issues

Pre-Flight Instruction at National Soaring Museum in NY: Donna sits in front seat of High-Performance Glider; pilot standing by plane on runway - photo by Rich Hill.

Somehow, I still feel badly about this response. Was I being too prideful? One blind gentleman said, “What if it works?” Several said they thought it was their responsibility to encourage others in their faith. Some confessed that these encounters made them feel horrible or angry.

Butterfly on Bergamott in Pennsylvania's Endless Mountains: photo by Rich Hill.

One woman, an urban dweller, expressed the idea that it boiled down to “others wishing that you, basically, not be you.”

I’ve had perhaps a dozen experiences in my lifetime with faith healing zealots (all young women) approaching me, all of whom asked if they could pray over me. Depending on my mood, I either allowed it, with a mindset of “Oh, this will make them feel better,” or, “No, thank you, but I appreciate your offer.” Only in one case did the zealot attach my blindness to sin, and it didn’t mean anything to me.

A Sign from a Fellow Blind Author

With so many of my blind brothers and sisters being so uncomfortable with this topic, I had misgivings about going forward with this piece. I’ve been reading Outside Myself, a young adult novel by Kristen Witucki. The story is told by two blind people, who meet through a library for the blind. In some ways, they couldn’t be more different. Imagine my surprise when I came across a scene where the twelve-year-old blind protagonist had an experience with faith healing.

I’ll have more to say about this excellent book in the months to come, when I’ve had an opportunity to truly digest it. But, for now, I will leave you with a couple of links and my assurance that Witucki tackles the issue of acceptance with an abundance of depth, bredth and sensitivity.

Outside Myself by Kristen Witucki

Amazon

https://www.amazon.com/Outside-Myself-Kristen-Witucki/dp/1942545991

Accessible Versions

Outside Myself is also available in accessible formats for readers with print disabilities through Bookshare and NLS (the National Library Service for the Blind & Physically Handicapped).

Posted in authors, Blindness, Braille, bullying, Cats & Dogs, faith healing, Guide dogs, memoir, nature, novel, Pennsylvania, Rural Life, songwriting, Uncategorized, Visually Impaired, young adult | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Read an eBook Week: The Heart of Applebutter Hill is Free Through March 9, 2019 

Goofus, a strawberry blonde tabby gets cozy with a copy of The Heart of Applebutter Hill by his Mom, Donna W. Hill.

Kitty says, “Always heard it’s nice to snuggle up with a good book.”

Here are some shots my hubby, Rich Hill, took of my fantasy-adventure, educator-recommended novel The Heart of Applebutter Hill. I’m hoping you’ll enjoy them enough to grant me a small favor. This week (March 3 through 9) is “Read an eBook Week” on Smashwords. My novel is free. There’s a discount code on this page, which you enter at check-out to receive your favorite eBook version free (.epub, .rtf, .mobi, .pdf and so on. http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/313071?ref=DonnaWHill

Blooming Amarilis with a print copy of The Heart of Applebutter Hill by Donna W. Hill, a fantasy adventure featuring some awesome flowers: photo by Rich Hill.

Obviously, I’d love it if you read and reviewed my book on Amazon, etc. But, even if you already have a copy, it would help me get some traction and exposure, if you would “buy” it for free anyway.

Links to reviews and publicity

Ice penguins investigate a print copy of Donna W. Hill's The Heart of Applebutter Hill: photo by Rich Hill.

Feel free to share this and to contact me with any questions or comments you may have. I’d love to hear from you.

Word Gathering Magazine issue 38

“Book Review: The Heart of Applebutter Hill (Donna Hill)”
Reviewed by Kristen Witucki http://www.wordgathering.com/issue38/reviews/hill.html 

Future Reflections: Volume 35 Number 1 Winter 2016

Book cover for The Heart of Applebutter Hill by Donna W. Hill shows a cave scene - stalactites reflected in an underground lake, while a hand holds the Heartstone of Arden-Goth: photos, Rich Hill;, design, Lizza Studios.

Book cover for The Heart of Applebutter Hill by Donna W. Hill shows a cave scene – stalactites reflected in an underground lake, while a hand holds the blue Heartstone of Arden-Goth: photos, Rich Hill;, design, Lizza Studios.

“The Heart of Applebutter Hill by Donna W. Hill Reviewed by Jacqueline Williams” https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/fr/fr35/1/fr350116.htm

WNEPTV 16 News with Julie Sidoni

lackawanna trail high library (Factoryville, PA): Donna W. Hill on sofa w librarian kelly hopkins; 4 students (l-r: Taylor Selwood,Jordan Flynn, Ally Decker and Annika Kongvold ) stand behind. Jordan holds Donna's novel The Heart of Applebutter Hill & Donna's black Lab guide dog, Hunter, watches from the floor: photo by rich hill.

Donna at lackawanna trail high library (Factoryville, PA) on sofa w librarian kelly hopkins & 4 students (l-r: Taylor Selwood,Jordan Flynn, Ally Decker and Annika Kongvold ) stand behind. Jordan holds Donna’s novel The Heart of Applebutter Hill & Donna’s black Lab guide dog, Hunter, watches from the floor: photo by rich hill.

“Blind Author Inspires Others with Her Vision” http://wnep.com/2016/02/26/blind-author-inspires-others-with-her-vision/

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Getting Ducks to the Duck House: Implications for an Indie Author

Years ago, my husband Rich, my guide dog Hunter and I went on a bit of a lark. Friends of ours from the Folk Lore Society of Northeast Pennsylvania, who go by the name of the Young Geezers, were performing at a nature center about sixty miles away. I got to do a guest set, and it was all very pleasant. Years later, it led to a bit of a revelation about self-promotion.

The Duck House

Dove Nnest with Eggs in Pond Shelter by Rich Hill.

No need for a dove house; they prefer a corner in our shelter.

Dove baby in Hill's Pond Shelter: photo by Rich Hill

Having an insatiable fascination with birds, we explored the many bird houses available for sale in the nature center’s store. Ultimately, we purchased a duck house. It is huge and was specifically designed for wood ducks.

4 Turtles on Floating Log in Hill's Pond: photo by Rich Hill.

We have a pond with frogs, toads, fish and turtles. Occasionally, mallards and wood ducks stop by for a swim, but none ever stays. According to what we learned, they like a house on a pole near the water. We had the water and the pole. And now, we thought, we had just the house.

Vowing to put it up the following spring, Rich stored it in the barn. Later that fall, he noticed something peculiar. An enterprising squirrel had packed it with black walnuts. It made a rather nice storage unit.

Come spring, we hung it on the pole and waited. Again ducks came to the pond. Three wood ducks stayed for several days, but eventually moved on. Then , starlings took up residence. The house was much too deep for the starlings who had to find far more straw than they would have needed in any of our other bird houses.

Owls & Squirrels

A Screech Owl Looks Out from  a House Built for Wood-Ducks. Photo by Rich Hill.

The following spring, the duck house, having been dutifully cleaned out by my husband, was returned to the pole. A screech owl moved in for a while. We love owls and were excited about the prospect of help with controlling the mice. For some reason, however, the owl left. Perhaps, he didn’t like his picture being taken?

Baby squirrels peering out of duck house high above Hill's pond: photo by Rich Hill.

“No, you go first,” says one of the baby squirrels.

Then one day in late spring, Rich came home all excited having just seen several very un-bird-like paws and noses sticking out of the duck house. He took this picture, though we never confirmed whether they were red or gray squirrels.

Hill's Pond Shelter, Reflected in Pond: photo by Rich Hill.

The house is empty again, and Heaven knows if we’ll ever get an actual duck, but it will be cleaned and returned to the pole after whatever comes our way.

A Street Performer’s History with Publicity

I suppose I’ve always been a bit of a publicity nut. It started as the unobtainable dream of a shy, legally blind songwriter, poet and short story author. The real stuff came along when my hometown paper, the Easton Express, did a piece about me receiving a guide dog from the Guide Dog Foundation in Smithtown, NY. That was followed up by coverage of my first presentation to the Easton Lions Club.

I did my own publicity for my music career — my work as a street performer in Philadelphia’s Suburban Station and Penn’s Landing. That led to doing school assemblies, presentations for local churches and libraries and an occasional gig at local folk clubs. Over the years, I self-produced three albums of original songs, and managed a bunch of local TV and radio appearances including Terry Gross’s “Fresh Air” and Gene Shay’s Sunday night folk music program.

Goofus, a strawberry blonde tabby gets cozy with a copy of The Heart of Applebutter Hill by his Mom, Donna W. Hill: photo by Rich Hill.

Kitty says, “Always heard it’s nice to snuggle up with a good book.” Photo by Rich Hill.

When my novel The Heart of Applebutter Hill came out, I had already been doing PR for various divisions and affiliates of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). I had been writing “print-worthy” press releases since my days as a street singer, was writing regularly for online magazines and had established a presence on social media.

Publicity Brings Unanticipated Joys

Over the years, many nice things have happened to me as a result of my little publicity-generating machine. After moving to the Endless Mountains, another article in the Easton Express prompted my first childhood friend to get in touch. The woman (a twelve-year-old at the time) who talked me into doing my first school assembly back in the ’80s, recently found me through Facebook, and another friend from my Philadelphia days touched bases near the same time.

While in the Philadelphia area, I did a joint school assembly for a high school that housed the St. Lucy’s Day School for Blind Children. One of the students, now a teacher herself, got in touch with me decades later and actually remembered the words to “No Stone Left Unturned,” the song I sang to the whole school that day.

Self-Promotion: the Lesson from the Duck House

Donna & her new yellow Lab guide dog Mo standing by Hill's pond: photo by Rich Hill

In PR, we do our best to create the right platform to support the products and services we are trying to promote. Ever mindful of the clientele we wish to attract, we develop and fine-tune our community and online presence, and work tirelessly to create the perfect image of ourselves or our company. Sometimes, we get the clientele we were hoping for, and sometimes we get something else entirely. That’s not always a bad thing.

Posted in authors, Guide dogs, nature, Pennsylvania, PR, Self-Publishing, songwriting, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Book Review: Helen Kobek’s Everyday Cruelty: How to Deal With its Effects without Denial, Bitterness or Despair

Everyday Cruelty: How to Deal With its Effects without Denial, Bitterness or Despair (first published in 2014) is finally available through Audible! Brilliant and timely, it is a masterpiece of observation, research and writing. Kobek has hit one out of the park with her first book, and has teamed up with Juliet Jones, a narrator who couldn’t be more perfect for the job. Our most underappreciated problems are coherently clarified, and a wide variety of solutions are presented. Kudos!

Photo Description: Helen Kobek’s book “Everyday Cruelty” is placed flat on top of a red notebook in the background, at a slight angle, with a blue pen (tipped with a red grip-eraser) clipped to the book’s cover at an angle, extending beyond the top and left cover edges. Suggests reading with pen in hand: courtesy of Helen Kobek.

How much of your best energy and limited time do you spend dealing with everyday cruelty? A clerk gives you a hard time about returning a purchase, though the store policy is “no questions asked;” a driver deliberately cuts you off in traffic or a colleague belittles your humanity or spirituality because you have different tastes in music.

We pride ourselves for trudging through a world full of these so-called “minor annoyances.” But, Their cumulative and long-term impacts on our lives and health are anything but minor. Kobek calls these virtually ubiquitous events, which are often over before we know what hit us or can determine how to respond, “the hardest thing about being alive.” We are experiencing, in her words, “an epidemic of unhappiness.”

Everyday Cruelty tackles a timely and thorny subject. Kobek has created a no-holes-barred, well-written masterpiece that fleshes out a tangled problem with clarity and leaves the reader enlightened and empowered. Drawing from critical thinkers from the past as well as her own insights, she presents a road map for dealing with our greatest challenges. Her suggestions illuminate a variety of roads to success that will suit a myriad of preferences and needs.

Author Bio: Helen Kobek

Helen Kobek is an eclectic, award-winning author/writer whose coverage includes social connection, relationship with nature, disability, and health. Her book Everyday Cruelty: How to Deal with Its Effects without Denial, Bitterness, or Despair (2014) was inspired by her awareness of the prevalence of addiction and social strains in humanity, and is an offering of hope for the betterment of our lives. Her diverse essays have appeared and been featured in magazines and newsletters with both national and local readership. Kobek is an independent journalist for CCTV Cambridge News, where she covers local/topical news and public interest stories, as she educates, comforts, and entertains her readers with such how-to topics as gently encouraging wayward birds to leave your house, grieving the unjust felling of a healthy neighboring 100 year-old tree, preventing the loss/pickpocketing of your wallet, and bringing a newborn baby to safety when the parents are not able to take care of her/him.

Helen kobek received her B.S. degree in Communication Disorders from Emerson College (Boston, MA), became an expert phonetician, and for decades has used her education as an accent modification instructor, teaching people from all over the world how to be understood. She lives in Cambridge, MA with her spouse Jules Kobek, and enjoys her free time being in nature, hosting improv comedy game events, and advocating for local trees.

Links to Helen Kobek’s Everyday Cruelty

Download your copy of Kobek’s Everyday Cruelty: How to Deal With its Effects without Denial, Bitterness or Despair. put your feet up and allow Audible narrator Juliet Jones to enlighten and empower you with her strong but gentle rendering of this excellent book. Or, pick up a copy in your choice of print, large print or Kindle editions. Then, let me know what you think. Better yet, let Helen know.

“I would love to hear from you! You can contact me at: diopublishing@gmail.com.”

Visit/Like Helen’s Everyday Cruelty Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/EverydayCruelty/

Audible edition

https://www.audible.com/pd/Everyday-Cruelty-Audiobook/B07J5G6VH7

Amazon Print & Kindle Editions

https://www.amazon.com/Everyday-Cruelty-Effects-without-Bitterness/dp/0692285237

Large print edition

https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Everyday+Cruelty+large+print

Posted in authors, Book Reviews, bullying, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

The New Dog Under the Table, Explanations of My Absence and a Request 

It’s been almost three years since my last original post. You would think I’d forgotten that I am a writer. In fact, The Hills have had major distractions in the intervening years — many of which have been unpleasant to say the least. Now, I am trying to get back to it, so I wanted to give you an overview of what’s been going on and what’s coming. I would also like your feedback.
A sneak peak at Mo, my new male yellow Lab guide dog: photo by Rich Hill

The Dog Thing

Weeks before Hunter's 13th birthday, he wanted to guide Donna along their favorite Trail; shows Greening Moss: photo by Rich Hill.
My black Lab guide dog, Hunter, passed on in March of 2016 just after turning thirteen. He was the dog who helped me learn to use a computer, and that alone should qualify him for a full-blown tribute post. I’ve been working on it since he passed. If that’s not writer’s block, I don’t know what is.

About a year later, I received my new boy, a yellow Lab named Mo. He’s my fifth guide dog — all from GDF. The thing is that this time around everything was totally different. Many of the things I learned since ’71, when I received my first guy, a black Lab named Simba, have changed significantly. Some changes were for the better; some not so much. Some, I’m still not sure about.

Upcoming Posts

Of course, I want to write about Hunter and Mo and our dear kitty, Goofus, but there are many other things on my mind. I have realized that I miss writing articles about this and that, as I used to do for a number of online magazines. Since the ones that paid have for the most part changed or gone under, and since they didn’t pay that much to begin with, a change is necessary. Those realities plus ongoing accessibility issues have convinced me that just doing the same thing as part of my blog would probably bring me at least as much satisfaction. I’d also like to make a section on my website to collect the older articles.

Goofus, a strawberry blonde tabby gets cozy with a copy of The Heart of Applebutter Hill by his Mom, Donna W. Hill.
I still want to write about writing and my novel The Heart of Applebutter Hill, and do occasional book reviews of things I’ve found and enjoyed. There’s always knitting; I’m facinated with how and why it works the way it does. I am also compelled to talk about experiences that I and other blind people have had and speculate about their meaning.

The Five Minute Rule

My husband and I have adopted a five minute rule about prattling on about our medical issues in public. So, how to convert five minutes into words? How about one paragraph for Rich, and I’ll share mine with Hunter?

In 2013, Rich was hospitalized seven times with severe pain. Thanks only to serendipity, he was ultimately diagnosed with “neuro” or CNS Lyme disease. He had a month of intravenous Ceftriaxone (an antibiotic that bridges the blood-brain barrier). He has permanent nerve damage throughout his body. Meds allow him to make a dent in the pain. His greatest strength is his bull-headedness. He goes from cutting down trees for firewood to crashing for days.

As Rich stabilized, Hunter came down with Lymphocytic-Plasmacytic Enteritis, the major form of canine IBD (inflammatory bowel disease). He lost ten pounds and a lot of hair. We stabilized him for about a year till we had to put him down. Then, I went from two carpal tunnel surgeries to surgery for a major hiatal hernia, a diagnosis of Barrett’s esophagus, idiopathic pancreatitis and non-alcoholic liver disease. And, both of Rich’s brothers passed away.

Suggestions?

Male yellow Lab guide dog, Mo, outside with red jolly ball, wearing sparkly xmas scarf: photo  by rich hill
If any of you have questions or subjects that you would like me to address in a post, please let me know. You can either use the comment section of this or any other post, or you can use the “Contact the Author” form on any page of this site; just look for the link near the top of the page.

Posted in authors, Blindness, Cats & Dogs, Guide dogs, novel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Stevie Interviews Author and Singer-Songwriter Donna W. Hill

Hi Friends, My apologies for being so out of touch. This interview conducted by author Stevie Turner will give you some idea why.

Stevie Turner

Today it’s my pleasure to feature quite a remarkable author — Donna W. Hill.  As well as an author, Donna is a journalist, singer-songwriter and recording artist, civil rights advocate, and avid knitter.  She and her husband  Rich live in Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains. 

You’ll find out why I think Donna is remarkable when you read her answers to my 20 questions below:

1.  How did you lose your sight, and at what age? 

It was a gradual process, not a specific point in time. I was born with an obvious visual impairment; I stared at light sources, not at toys or faces. At three, I was diagnosed as legally blind from Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP).

I had night blindness, tunnel vision and poor central vision. I could read regular print with difficulty (a word or a few letters at a time). I walked without any aids, but frequently tripped and…

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Retiring Guide Dogs: No One-Size-Fits-All Solution

Weeks before Hunter's 13th birthday, he and Donna walk along Trail Loop; shows Greening Moss: photo by Rich Hill.
Weeks before Hunter’s 13th birthday on March 7, 2016, he and Donna walk along their favorite Trail; shows Greening Moss: photo by Rich Hill.

Despite the many wonderful things guide dogs can do for their blind handlers, they share a common flaw. Though they can find the post office, a seat on a train or deftly navigate a construction zone, they can’t live as long as we’d prefer.

Hunter, Donna's black Lab guide dog,  on Hill's Pond-Berm Trail with  blooming yellow Birdsfoot Trefoil, Showing his Gray in Summer of 2013: photo by Rich Hill.
Hunter, Donna’s black Lab guide dog, on Hill’s Pond-Berm Trail with blooming yellow Birdsfoot Trefoil, Showing his Gray in Summer of 2013: photo by Rich Hill.

Hunter got sick a year and a half ago, and was ultimately diagnosed with Lymphocytic-Plasmacytic Enteritis (LPE, a form of canine Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Since then, people have been asking me when I would be getting a new guide dog. The issue comes up even more now that he’s thirteen.

Guide Dogs, Ownership & Retirement

Donna & Hunter rest by a lake in South Dakota several years ago: photo by Rich Hill.
Donna & Hunter rest by a lake in South Dakota several years ago: photo by Rich Hill.

The Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind (Smithtown, NY), where I received all four of my furry helpers, is one of only a few schools which offer guide dog handlers full ownership of their dogs. Like many GDF students, I always opt in.

Despite having transferred all of the legal responsibility for the dogs to the blind owners, however, GDF is there with help and support throughout the life of the team. They, of course, help in the retirement process. The transition from one guide dog to the next is replete with many questions, unforeseen circumstances, and difficult decisions.

When Should a Guide Dog Retire?

Safety is the most important consideration. If a guide dog is, for any reason, no longer able to perform his duties, and it’s not a matter that veterinary care or further training can rectify, it’s time.

The dog’s health isn’t the only factor. Sometimes, the dog just slows down with age or shows signs that work is becoming too stressful. Since opportunities for independent living and employment for blind Americans are primarily in urban areas, many blind people live in cities, use public transportation and live in apartment complexes. This presents more and different challenges than living in a small town or — as we do — in the country.

Many handlers choose to retire their dogs in middle age. This is done for several reasons. Handlers need to take time off from work to train with a new guide dog. Having the flexibility to schedule something that works for the employer and GDF is preferable to being stuck in the city with no guide dog, waiting for a place on class and using alternate methods to go about one’s life. Furthermore, many people want their beloved canine friends to have a happy retirement while they are still healthy enough to enjoy it.

What Happens to Retired Guide Dogs?

Some guide dogs suddenly become ill and pass away. Most guide dogs, however, are retired in relatively good health. The blind person can keep the retired guide dog and get a new one at the same time. When we lived in Glenside, I knew a couple who each had a working guide dog. They also had a retired guide dog and a cat. They all slept together in a king-sized water bed.

3 Lazy Boys  & 1 Lazy Girl: shows Donna, black Lab guide dog Hunter & rescued orange tabby Goofus in a Lazy Boy recliner: photo by Rich Hill.
3 Lazy Boys & 1 Lazy Girl: shows Donna, black Lab guide dog Hunter & rescued orange tabby Goofus in a Lazy Boy recliner: photo by Rich Hill.

Not everyone can, or wishes to, keep their retired dogs, however. Some people give them to their parents, other family members or friends that the dog already knows. Others prefer finding a country environment, where the dog has more freedom.

For those who need another option, GDF has a retirement program. The family who raised the dog as a puppy is usually given the option to take the dog back, and many do. If that doesn’t work, there is a long list of volunteer families ready to adopt retired guide dogs.

My Experience with Retiring My Guide Dogs: a Different Path

Donnna - with her black Lab guide dog, Hunter - donates The Heart of Applebutter Hill to Dir. Jesse Johnson of the Towanda Public Library: photo by Rich Hill.
Donnna – with her black Lab guide dog, Hunter – donates The Heart of Applebutter Hill to Dir. Jesse Johnson of the Towanda Public Library: photo by Rich Hill.

I’ve never gotten a new guide until after the one I was with passed away. None of my dogs have ever left our home or my care. I understand why people have to do this and consider myself profoundly blessed that I have not had to, though it comes with its own challenges. It was less of a well-thought-out decision on my part than just the way things happened that got me started down this path.

Simba

Donna Sitting with her first guide dog Simba (a black Lab) in Great Smokies National Park in '81: photo by Rich Hill
Donna Sitting with her first guide dog Simba (a black Lab) in Tennessee’s Great Smokies National Park in ’81: photo by Rich Hill.

My first guide, Simba, was 13 and working well when he was diagnosed with lympho-sarcoma. I was a street performer in Philadelphia’s center-city train terminal Suburban Station. At the time of Simba’s diagnosis, there was a system-wide strike by SEPTA (the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority). Even if I could have gotten to center city, no one else would have been there. It was very liberating, and I never had to think of Simba’s condition as interfering with my livelihood.

At the time, the treatment, which our local vet warned us had more side effects than the specialists would acknowledge, offered a fifty percent chance of a remission lasting up to six months. Without it, they estimated that he’d have six weeks.

He had about two. Our vet put him to sleep in our back yard with Rich and I comforting him and a tape of Segovia playing.

“The best for the best,” as Rich said.

Curly Connor

Donna & Curly Connor in opening of stone wall at Grey Towers National Historical Site (Milford, PA), mid '90s: photo by Rich Hill.
Donna & Curly Connor in opening of stone wall at Grey Towers National Historical Site (Milford, PA), mid ’90s: photo by Rich Hill.

The real Curly Connor, the half black Lab and half Golden Retriever upon whom Abigail’s guide dog in The Heart of Applebutter Hill is based, had sudden back end paralysis from a vaccination reaction at age 12. The vet thought it was arthritis, but I asked him to humor me and do an x-ray. He stood there clicking his pen and finally said that Connor had the hips of a 6-year-old.

With the help of Dr. Jean Dodds, a veterinary epidemiologist referred to us by Emily Biegel, our GDF trainer, along with a local neurologist, we got him passed that so that he worked for 2 more years.

When I retired him, Curly Connor would still go for walks with me. I didn’t work him; I was using my white cane. We’d get rides to school-assembly presentations from Rich, who had been laid off by then. This allowed Curly Connor to dress up like a guide dog and walk around for the kids, which he loved.

We were in Glenside by then and no longer street singing. Curly Connor died in our Living room at the ripe old age of 15. The vet who put him to sleep said it had been an honor to know and treat him.

MoMo

I deeply regret not having a picture of my eighty-pound black Lab/Golden Retriever tough guy, MoMo. Rich hasn’t yet digitized that part of his photography archives.

MoMo died suddenly at age 9, and we were living here in the mountains. I hadn’t yet transferred my school assembly skills to this area and was using him primarily for long walks. We knew he was aging rapidly, but tests weren’t showing anything. One day we woke up to an emergency. We rushed him to the vet’s, and he died while they were examining him. Later we learned that he had angio-sarcoma.

Hunter

Hunter, Donna's black Lab guide dog, has found a new way to carry his red rubber Ring. It's in his mouth but flipped up over his face: photo by Rich Hill.
At 12.5, Hunter, Donna’s black Lab guide dog, found a new way to carry his red rubber Ring. It’s in his mouth but flipped up over his face: photo by Rich Hill.

Hunter has been essentially retired for a year and a half. He recovered from LPE, regained the twelve pounds he had lost and returned to what we called “modified assignment.” we took short walks on our trails here on the property, and Rich threw Hunter’s beloved red rubber ring to build up his strength. Until a couple of months ago, When we went out, he accompanied us and was still up to working in stores.

Recently, however, things have changed. Though he sees and hears as well as ever and his appetite remains as respectable as his breed demands, his strength is evaporating before our eyes. We have to lift him into our car, and when he plays with his red rubber ring, it’s more of a prance than a run.

Donna W. Hill, author of the educator-recommended novel The Heart of Applebutter Hill, & her guide dog Hunter walk along path in California Redwoods in Sept. 2009. There's a glowing mist: Photo by Rich Hill.
Donna & her guide dog Hunter walk along path in California Redwoods in September 2009. There’s a glowing mist: Photo by Rich Hill.

Yes, I miss our long walks. Nevertheless, I feel blessed that we are in a position to allow Hunter to spend his waning days or weeks or whatever it is with us, working when he’s up to it. Just as there will never be another Simba, another Curly Connor or another MoMo, I know that I can never replace Hunter either. I am, however, still blind. So, when Hunter is gone, I will get another guide dog, and we will give him all of our love.

Resources

Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind – providing guide dogs at no cost to qualified students

http://www.guidedog.org/

Dr. Jean Dodds

Dr. Jean Dodds’ Pet Health Resource Blog: Considered one of the foremost experts in pet healthcare, Dr. Dodds focuses on vaccination protocols, thyroid issues and nutrition. http://drjeandoddspethealthresource.tumblr.com/

More Information from Dr. Dodds

http://Hemopet.org http://Nutriscan.org

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