“To see her just constantly sitting around doing nothing was very difficult. We would hear her crying all the time”
Jenny, mother of Bec, who was confronted with the reality of living her life without vision.
Every day, more and more Queenslanders learn they will be living without sight. Blindness doesn’t discriminate – it can happen to anyone, at any time.
For many people, it may be a gradual deterioration in their sight over time. For some, it is an unexpected shock from an eye disease or accident. Then there are others whose challenges and journey into blindness starts from birth.
This was the case for Bec.
Delivered prematurely at just 26 weeks, Bec’s parents Jenny and Steven were told there was only a 25% chance that Bec would survive the days following.
“The doctors put seven marks on her cot to represent the seven days she needed to get through if her chances of survival were to increase,” Jenny said.
Living any new parent’s worst nightmare, the seven essential days felt like a lifetime for Jenny and Steven.
Despite all the odds and with the help of incredible doctors, Bec pulled through.
“We were so relieved we still had our baby girl,” Jenny said. “After months in hospital, an Ophthalmologist had a look at Bec and said there would likely be some damage to her eyes from the oxygen therapy she’d received as part of her treatment, but it was too early to say for certain.
“Then when she was about 12 months old, we got the worst news. They told us they didn’t think she could see anything at all. We were just devastated.”
Bec was diagnosed with Retinopathy of Prematurity – permanent damage to her eyes resulting from the higher levels of oxygen she needed to keep her alive as a premature baby.
Fortunately as Bec grew older, it became obvious she had a small amount of useable vision and she was determined to do things like any other kid her age.
“Because it was all I knew, I coped quite well,” Bec said.
Through school, Bec was able to manage with just basic items to assist her vision, like a magnifying glass with a light and a computer with high contrast settings.
She also developed a passion for martial arts – particularly Karate – and rose through the ranks to eventually achieve a black belt. Bec studied a Certificate IV in Fitness at TAFE to support her passion for martial arts teaching and training.
Despite her low vision, life was going well for Bec and she was immensely proud of her achievements.
But when Bec turned 25, things rapidly started to change for the worse.
“The first thing I noticed was that my computer screen was constantly flickering. But then I started noticing that other light sources did the same,” she said.
Nevertheless, Bec continued pursuing her passion for martial arts, even taking part in her first national Judo competition, representing Queensland in the state team. She felt a sense of total elation about being able to compete without any problems.
But on her flight home from the competition, tragedy struck.
“All of a sudden I felt a sharp pain in my eye like someone had flicked me. Straight away my colour scheme just went to brown,” she explained. “I knew instantly that wasn’t good.”
Bec’s retina had detached during the flight and the only way Bec would have any chance at regaining her vision was to undergo intensive eye surgery. There was a risk that the surgery wouldn’t
work, but doing nothing and going totally blind just wasn’t an option she would consider.
“I still had virtually no vision when we went back to the doctors a few months later.”
I’m sad to say that unfortunately for Bec, the news from the doctors wasn’t good.
“Basically I got told that I wasn’t going to get any more vision than what I had now. It just wasn’t going to get any better,” she said.
Bec’s vision had deteriorated to the point where she could see no more than a smokey haze. Below is an example an example of what Bec sees every day.
“I guess I’d planned for things to go back to normal. To then be told that’s the best you’re ever going to get… It’s pretty easy to feel ungrateful.”
Can you imagine what it would be like to have everything you know and love ripped away from you in one moment?
Almost instantly, Bec sank into a deep depression.
“I wasn’t coping because I’d never done the whole ‘no vision’ thing. I’d spent my whole life developing strategies to work with what vision I had,” she said.
“Now even trying to walk would make me feel dizzy and disoriented. Even in my own home I’d often think I was walking to one room but then I’d find I was on the total opposite wall.
“It was like starting from square one all over again.”
Perhaps the biggest blow for Bec was being forced to stop her martial arts training. After years of living an active lifestyle, Bec spiralled into deeper depression. Gradually, she gained 30 kilos. She now stayed at home, alone.
Jenny and Steven also felt immense heartache seeing their daughter go through such a painful struggle all over again, just like they had more than 20 years ago.
“Bec had been so fit and working really hard, so to see her just drop her bundle and constantly be sitting around doing nothing was very difficult,” Jenny said.
“We would hear her crying all the time.”
Eventually, Bec’s close school friend who was legally blind taught her to use some specialised technology to help make life easier again.
Once she learnt the basics, Bec joined online support groups to receive further help and advice. But while she now had a wealth of knowledge at her fingertips, she grew to realise she was extremely
unhappy with just sitting in the house all day.
“I thought I’ve got to get back up. I can’t let this beat me, I’ve got to keep going,” she said.
“It was at that point I realised I had to do something about it. So I got in contact with Guide Dogs Queensland.”
Reaching out to Guide Dogs Queensland created a turning point in Bec’s life.
Bec first learnt how to use a long cane so she could navigate outside her home. She completed both beginner and advanced level cane training at our centre in Brisbane before undertaking a personalised program in her local area on the Sunshine Coast, with Melissa as her Mobility Instructor.
“It took a while to learn how to travel independently at the stage I was at. It’s scary to go outside with such little vision because your imagination just goes into overdrive,” Bec said.
“I always thought I’d get lost and had this horrible feeling like I’d be sick. My disorientation and anxiety were basically feeding off each other and made me more anxious.
“I spoke to some counsellors through Guide Dogs and gradually as my confidence with my cane and knowledge of the routes I was taking grew, that disoriented feeling and anxiety went away.
“I actually got some confidence back.”
It’s not surprising that Bec’s confidence and success grew with Melissa’s support. Melissa is one of our most devoted and experienced Guide Dog Mobility Instructors – one of the many fine specialists that Guide Dogs Queensland is able to employ because of your support.
“I’ve seen many people go through an incredible change once they’ve received the right support,” Melissa said.
Bec’s life was turning around again.
“It’s was so rewarding to see her take her independence in her stride. The next step for Bec was definitely a Guide Dog,” Melissa said.
After realising what a difference technology can make to people who are blind or have low vision, Bec wanted to be able to use technology to help others who find themselves in the same situation she was once in.
“For Bec to fulfil her dreams of completing a degree in technology and eventually use it to help others with low or no vision, a Guide Dog was the only way. To parents Jenny and Steven, a Guide Dog would also give them peace of mind knowing that Bec is equipped to live her life confidently and independently.”
Melissa identified a Guide Dog called ‘Steffi’ that she felt was the perfect match for Bec.
But in order to place Bec and ‘Steffi’ funds were needed to complete ‘Steffi’s intensive training. That’s when we reached out to the Guide Dog community and were amazed by your kind generosity.
We are so pleased to share that thanks to the support of the community Bec and ‘Steffi’ are now a successful working Guide Dog team.
The moment Bec found out her new Guide Dog was ready for her was one she’ll never forget.
“I was on holiday when I got a call from my instructor Melissa. She said, ‘We’ve got a dog for you, her name is ‘Steffi’ and we’d like you to come and meet her’. That was a pretty cool call to get,” Bec said.
“I was a bit nervous at first because I was worried she wouldn’t like me. At the same time I was really hoping she would be the match I’d been waiting for.”
When they met it was immediately obvious the pair were a sound match. After working together for only a short time, the change in Bec has already been significant.
Since being paired with ‘Steffi’, Bec has regained the confidence she had before her vision deteriorated. Not only has ‘Steffi’ given her the ability to be safe and independent as she goes about her life, she has also become a trusted companion and partner.
Bec is now enrolled at the Sunshine Coast University studying a Bachelor of Information Technology. With ‘Steffi’ by her side, Bec hopes to use her degree to develop adaptive technology that will help others experiencing similar struggles with blindness and low vision.
“‘Steffi’s’ been learning my travel routes so she can help me get around uni and I’ve been learning how to understand her when we’re working together,” Bec said.
“She’s settled in with me really nicely and we’re bonding more and more each day.”
We are excited about what the future holds for Bec and ‘Steffi’, and know that they can achieve anything they set their minds to.
There are currently 38 more Queenslanders like Bec on our waiting list for a Guide Dog, hoping to receive the independence they need to open up their future. We hope that with the support of the community that we can change their lives too.