The Herald Bulletin

June 10, 2013

Woman's best friend

St. Vincent director finds new freedom with seeing eye dog

By Baylee Pulliam
The Herald Bulletin

ANDERSON, Ind. — New York City can be disorienting: sidewalks peppered with litter, street signs and tourists stopping every few feet to snap photos.

But Joni Breeden bobs and weaves through the crowd with relative ease — even though she’s almost completely blind.

“It was marvelous, exhausting, challenging, exciting,” she said. “I could get around, even though no person was with me.”

No person, true, but there was a seeing eye dog — a 20-month-old golden retriever puppy, who now waits patiently under Breeden’s desk at the St. Vincent Anderson Regional Hospital’s Erskine Rehabilitation Center.

Breeden, the hospital’s director of rehabilitation, has been gradually losing her vision for about 40 years; an inherited, progressive disease called retinitis pigmentosa, which has left her blind to all but the dark and light blurs in the corners of her eyes.

“My symptoms started in my teens,” Breeden said. She said she’s made peace with knowing that, as she ages, total blindness becomes more and more a possibility.

And she hardly seems limited: Her office computer reads paperwork aloud and, after working there 32 years at Erskine, she has the floor plan nearly memorized.

“But I want to enjoy travel and be active,” Breeden said. “So I really needed help navigating,” a task which, before, fell to her “seeing-eye kids and husband.”

So, Breeden went to Morristown, N.J., where she spent a few weeks at The Seeing Eye guide dog school, training and bonding with her furry guide and running memorized routes on the school’s campus and nearby urban areas.

The not-for-profit school and its ‘puppy raisers’ train the dogs to handle virtually any scenario — from riding the bus, to doctor’s appointments, to church or attending a show on Broadway. They even attend doggy college and have final exams before they’re sent to work.

“I probably could have qualified for a dog years ago,” Breeden said, “But I just kept putting it off. I’m glad I finally did.”

Now when Breeden goes to work, so does her dog. The fuzzy, golden retriever puppy is an employee, she said, and gets treated like one.

“We have a work time and we have a play time,” she said. “She rests under my desk until I need escorted to a meeting.” At Erskine, it’s all business — no socializing or other distractions until her twice daily breaks, when she and Breeden usually take a walk in the park.

Having a dog has been liberating, Breeden said, enable her to meet up with friends, run errands and other day-to-day actions without having to worry.

“I like to tell people, ‘she (the dog) can’t read, she can’t drive and she can’t shop,’” Breeden said. “Now if she could do that, I’d be a super woman.”

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