Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

March 11, 2012

The path to independence

Virginia woman enrolls in seeing eye dog program

by JAMIE PARSELL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

BLUEFIELD, Va — Donna Lambert has always had a pet in her life. She has dished out bowls of breakfast and dinner, thrown dozens of balls and squeaky toys, bathed wiggly animals after muddy days and driven to the veterinarian’s office.

But her new pet — a seeing eye dog — will give her independence instead of doggy hugs and kisses.

“I am completely blind,” said the 61-year old Lambert. “I gradually lost my eyesight from retinitis pigmentosa. There is damage to the retina and the nerve behind the eye.”

Lambert, a former McDowell County teacher, is currently a student with the Leader Dog Program in Michigan. She hopes to return home with a seeing eye dog.

She was diagnosed when she was 6-years-old. Her family lived in Welch and when she was 12, they visited a doctor in Richmond, Va.

“He told me I would eventually be blind,” she said.

Life went on despite the diagnosis.

She married former Welch resident Jerry Lambert and taught school for 10 years before deciding  to stay at home with her two small children, Lisa and Christopher. At age 40, she began to notice significant changes in her eye sight. Friends and family helped Lambert. She still had some light perception, but motion was harder to detect. She knew she would eventually need more assistance but wasn’t ready for a lifestyle change, especially with an active family. A seeing eye dog would be a lot of work. Plus, it required going to school. 

“I kept putting it off. I suppose a couple of years ago I decided to take this seriously,” she said.

A member of St. Elizabeth’s in Pocahontas, Va., Lambert was friends with Bluefield, Va., Lion member Steve Danko and his wife Anne. Through various club members, she was directed to Dr. Donald Taylor, Zane Dale Christian and his daughter April Williams, who are all involved in the Leader Dog program with the Lions Club. The Lions club actively supports the Leader Dog program.

Lambert said she had to meet certain requirements, one which included proficient skills in orientation and mobility training using a cane. The process is lengthy, she added.

“I didn’t want to do the cane at first, but an instructor from the department of the blind came. We practiced with the cane. The scariest thing was crossing the street,” she said.

In February of 2011, she attended an accelerated program with Leader Dog for a week. She said it was a lot of work, but good. Back at home, she practiced using her cane, crossing the street and visiting local shops.

“After six months, I had to send them a video of what I had accomplished. I went to Bluefield, Va., and the video showed me going to the post office, crossing the street. We even did a street light in Princeton.”

Lambert was approved in October 2011 and in December 2011, they informed her of a possible match.

It is a far cry from her days as a teacher, but she believes her background will help her adjust.

“If the teacher doesn’t learn, how do you teach the kids?” she said.

She said her role as a former classroom teacher will allow her to listen carefully, practice and develop her memory. She is not afraid of the work, but is sad to be separated from friends and family.

“After the first week, a routine will be established and everything will be fine,” she added.

During her time away from the two Virginias, Lambert will bond with the dog and learn how to rely on the animal’s cues. They will learn how to walk streets, visit stores, go to the malls and college campuses and eat in restaurants.

She is looking forward to being more independent. Before the Leader Dog program, Lambert kept an active schedule by visiting friends and family and staying active in her church. A seeing eye dog will give her even more freedom.

“Now when I walk out the door, I will have my eyes with me. There is a security that a dog can bring that a cane doesn’t,” she said. “I will have the ability to have a friend leave me downtown and I can go to the pharmacy, eat lunch and go to Leslie Ann’s.”

Being diagnosed at early age, Lambert discovered the benefits of a positive attitude a long time ago. She said you learn to adjust as you go.

“The best thing I have is my memory. I can visualize whatever —  like how blue the sky is. I know what blue is ...” she said.

Soon, she will know what it is like to put her trust in an animal.

“He will be my eyes,” she said.

— Contact Jamie Parsell at jparsell@bdtonline.com.