Looking for something hopeful? Non-political? I’ve got it right here

Mike and I donate to the Seeing Eye (surprise, surprise!) and in return, this year the school sent us a video with staff and volunteers explaining how they work together to prepare puppies to grow up and guide people who, like me, are unable to see.

I write a lot here about my guide dogs, but not as much as I should about the human effort and energy poured into making them the heroic dogs they are. This video does a fantastic job of that in just four short minutes. Vet techs, trainers, a kennel associate, someone from the breeding station, a retiree who volunteers to walk dogs, a genetic specialist and a couple little girls from a family who volunteers to raise puppies all give short and sincere thanks for supporting their work. The video is not over-produced,and, best of all, each person starts their bit by introducing you to the dog at their feet.

The video made me appreciate all over again just how many people devote their lives to keeping me safe with my Seeing Eye dogs. Just listening to it left me teary-eyed. Take a look at the video yourself (use this link or click on the image above) — I can only imagine how blubbery those of you who can see will be once you lay eyes on the dogs as well.

Mondays with Mike: The rest of the story

Thanks everyone for your caring and kind wishes after you read last week’s post about my trip to the emergency room. And apologies to anyone who was left concerned about my state of health.

When I wrote the post, I thought “I’m fine” covered it.

But a phone call with our longtime friend Jean Thompson indicated otherwise. Jean is a great writer whom I was lucky to have as a writing teacher in grad school. As Jean put it during our conversation, “You might have added just a sentence or two of expository writing about the I’m fine part.”

I never, ever argue with my instructor on these matters. So under the better-late-than-never heading, here’s what happened: I had a bout with atrial fibrillation. I’d had a couple minor episodes months earlier and seen a cardiologist, who diagnosed them as afib. So we were on it. But this one lasted long enough to send me to the ER.

You just stick the sensors on the back of the phone...

You just stick the sensors on the back of the phone…

Once there, the plan was to shock me back into rhythm and keep me overnight. But around midday I dozed off out of sheer boredom, and after I woke from my short nap I thought to myself, “Hey, I think it stopped.” And it had. Once I was no longer much of a priority, I was there for several more hours until tests could be performed and reviewed. Which is why I was there so long. I was OK. Nothing more boring than being OK in a hospital. But it beats not being OK in the hospital.

It’s all good now, though, under control, blah blah.

Sorry. That’s probably TMI. But, it leads me to the best part: My doctor told me about this thing called Kardia. It’s a phone app and a pair of special sensor pads that you affix to the back of your mobile phone (or the back of your mobile phone case). The upshot: You can do an EKG in 30 seconds using your phone. And it works.

Since I had this episode, I keep finding out that lots of people I know have afib or have had a bout or two. So I thought it worthwhile to let y’all know about this little gadget. It’s very accurate—they compared results on my phone to the monitor at the hospital and it was right on. And it helped break up the boredom.

download the app and it's instant EKG.

download the app and it’s instant EKG.

Plus, it’s just so damn cool I can’t stand it. You just put two or more finger tips of your right hand on the right sensor, the tips of your left fingers on the other sensor, click the Record button on the screen with your thumb, and the dang thing shows you your heart rhythm for the next 30 seconds on a readout. It uses the phone’s microphone to measure your heart rhythm.

It keeps a journal, and, you can talk while you’re testing to describe how you’re feeling (fine, dizzy, whatever) and the thing records the voice and transcribes the note. You can also make notes about what you ate, drank, physical activity, etc.

The sensor device costs $99—but I got it at the holiday price of $75. Once you get it, you stick it to your phone (it’s extremely thin and light), download the free app, follow the instructions, and you get yer EKG done. Voila! When I’m not using it, it’s just another app, and doesn’t interfere with anything I normally do with the phone.

Oh, and the name of the company is Alivecor. The tagline is “Keep living.” I’m on board.

Fear itself

I have a side job moderating the Easterseals national blog, and with the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday coming up on Monday, a colleague there emailed us all this quote she found on a Friendship Circle Special Needs Blog post titled 10 Disability Awareness Lessons Learned From Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.

The quote brought to mind an New York Times article called “Why Do We Fear the Blind?” that tried to explain why Blindness is the most feared and misunderstood of all disabilities — the article quoted everyone from the 18th century French philosopher Denis Diderot to modern essayist Christopher Hitchens to find the answer.

Really? It took famous philosophers and scholars to explain this? Let’s be real. People are afraid of blindness because, well, being blind looks scary. And maybe seeing someone like me, who is blind, serves as a reminder: this could happen to you, too.

Fear not. Odds aren’t great. Only 1.3 million people in the United States are legally blind. That’s not many. We human beings tend to be fearful of things we don’t know, though, and with so few of us out here, your chances of getting to know a person who is blind is rare.

The reporter who wrote the New York Times article described what it was like to put on a blindfold to try to understand what it’s like to traverse city streets when you can’t see. She can now feel proud about being sensitive enough to try walking around New York City with a blindfold on, but hey, we can’t take the blindfold off and wow our friends with stories of how scary that was.

People who are blind spend miserably difficult months with remarkably dedicated orientation and mobility trainers learning how to do simple things, like walk outside and mail a letter. After practicing and practicing, and getting around for years on your own with a white cane or a guide dog, it’s not nearly as scary as the first time.

Nothing to be afraid of here.

I started losing my eyesight in 1984, when I was 25 years old. Before then, I had a job advising college students who wanted to study overseas. The job entailed talking with students, checking out what programs might work for them, phoning different college departments or other universities to arrange for the transfer of college credits.

I was sure I’d be able to perform these tasks without being able to see. My boss, however, was equally sure I could not.

I tried proving her wrong. At first I didn’t use a white cane or a dog. I quit driving or riding my bike to campus, but I could still see well enough to walk to work with a walking cane (by chance Mike and I happened to have bought one as a souvenir during our honeymoon in Scotland months before, when I could still see).

As my eyesight got worse, I started making mistakes in the office. One morning I spilled grounds all over the floor on my way to make the morning coffee. I sat inches away from my computer screen to read the words. I ran into tabletops. At one point my boss took me aside and told me I wouldn’t be going to the annual convention with my colleagues that year. “You’ll embarrass the office,” she said.

Those were scary times.

By the end of that year, I had lost my sight completely. The Americans with Disabilities Act had not been passed yet. My contract was terminated. My confidence was shattered. How could I have been so naive? Did I really think I was worth hiring? Why would anyone employ someone who couldn’t see?

I considered pursuing a master’s degree in blind rehabilitation then, reasoning that if you work helping blind people, being blind would be an advantage, and I might get a job. After some soul-searching, I realized that with my personality I might be able to do more for the blind community by getting outside of it.

I am not shy, and I hope that just being out and about, using public transportation to get to the classes I lead and the elementary schools I visit with my Seeing Eye dog, doing things I like, and, well, being myself, might show people who might not come across a blind person in their daily lives that we are nothing to be afraid of. We can still live a full, creative, and pleasurable life.

It’s what I can do.

If you’re blind, are you still able to cry?

My Seeing Eye dog Whitney usually leads me to Chicago’s Union Station to catch rides to the suburbs to visit schools, but when a friend from our Hackney’s days offered to drive us to Kindi Academy, a Montessori school in Lisle, Ill., yesterday I jumped at the chance.

Whitney and I at Kindi Academy yesterday.

Whitney and I at Kindi Academy yesterday.

It was raining in Chicago yesterday, and the train Whit and I would have had to catch left Chicago at 7:40 in the morning. That meant we would have been approaching the train station precisely when commuters were getting off trains. Commuters rushing to work aren’t on the look-out for ongoing pedestrian traffic, not to mention Seeing Eye dogs. We were safer — and warmer — in our friend’s car, plus Pat and I talked so much along the way that the drive flew by.

Kindi is a Montessori School for kids up to eighth grade., Our first presentation was for all the first, second, and third-graders. We spoke to the older kids after that, and the sessions were entertaining, as always. A sampling of their questions:

  • What does your dog like to chase?
  • If you’re blind, are you still able to cry?
  • How long did it take you to learn to read and write Braille?
  • How do you write books if you can’t see?
  • How does your dog tell you, I mean, if there was a twig on the sidewalk and it was in the way, how does your dog tell you it’s there?
  • What inspired you to write a book?
  • That day in the doctor’s office, when they told you and your husband that you would never ever be able to see again, were you scared?
  • Are all the books you write autobiographies?
  • Does your dog recognize it’s your voice when you give a command, or if someone else told your dog to sit, would she sit?

The girl who asked that last question said she thought of it as a hypothesis, and I offered to test it out. “Give it a try!” I told the girl to say Whitney’s name and tell her to sit. She did. Whitney ignored her. “Aha!” squealed the girl. “She only listens to you! With that hypothesis solved, I stood up, lifted Whitney’s harness, said her name and commanded a stern, “Outside!”

The kids were all sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the library rug, and Whitney threaded me safely past them to the hallway door. “Good girl, Whitney!”

The children were wowed, and so was I — by their curiosity, the good manners, and their thoughtful questions. And a special thanks to our friend Pat Gartner for getting Whitney and me to Kindi Academy yesterday — we had a ball!.

Mondays with Mike: Chicago med

Well, a funny thing happened on my way to Friday last week. I landed in the emergency room.

Before I go further: I’m fine. Except for having just lost a chunk of my life in medical la-la land, that is. It all left me with a new commitment to staying out of that place, and a reaffirmation of how amazing lots of doctors and nurses are.

It wasn't quite this bad.

It wasn’t quite this bad….

I’m happy to say that on that particular day, I was relatively low maintenance for them. The biggest challenge I presented was a hairy chest that interfered with electrode sensors. Four different people tried to improve the situation—there was conductive gel, removal and replacement—and several “sorries” after they ripped off an adhesive electrode to replace it. I felt like Steve Carrell in that scene from The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

I got there at 7:30 a.m. It was a busy morning—I was told later the ER had 120 patients at one time and the hospital was nearly full. Those of us who were not in bad shape spent a lot of time on gurneys in the open corridor.

It was also one of the coldest days of the year, and there were at least five people who I judged to be homeless being treated as a result. A social worker was arranging for rides to shelters. Three of these patients were docile, but a couple were belligerent, drawing hospital security to the rescue.

One woman lay on a gurney under a pile of blankets and appeared not to move for hours. And then, she leapt up, butt naked except for a blanket she held over her head and back like a cape, yelling, “I have to pee, I have to pee.” She was assisted and she made it in time. But when she returned she was restless. “I have to call my mama!” She shouted it over and over again. Staff found her a cell phone—last I saw she was talking on it. It wasn’t clear there was anyone else on the other end, though.

There were Chicago cops, one who gave a man in a sling a document with a hearing date—the man appeared to have been an assault victim. The officer wanted to be sure the victim showed up. There were Chicago Fire EMTs who’d brought people in on stretchers with backboards, straight from a car accident.

One young man walked in under his own power, looking very pale. Our paths crossed again after we were brought in for treatment. He was suffering severe shaking in his hands and arms.

There was an elderly, indigent man who had fallen down some steps and separated his shoulder. Staff got him situated, took X-rays, and put in an IV. He was to get a CT scan. As happens in these circumstances, a long lull followed after that prep work was done. The man grew impatient, pulled out his IV, put his clothes back on, and somehow managed to head for the exit using his walker, grimacing in pain the whole time. He was intercepted and talked into staying.

That day was an exercise in managed chaos that made TV depictions look tame. Throughout, staff was mostly unflappable. Kind but firm, honest and caring.Some nurses were on 12-hour shifts, and I did about that much time in the ER myself.

I can’t say enough about the people who took care of me in the ER—the nurses, the docs, the people who wheeled me around from place to place.

But, like I said, I’m not planning on seeing any of them again anytime soon.

 

Teach me how to say goodbye: Burr is leaving Chicago

News came out this week that Joshua Henry, who played the role of Aaron Burr so perfectly in the Chicago production of Hamilton, is moving on to play Burr when the musical opens in San Francisco this spring.

Josh Henry as Burr.

Josh Henry as Burr.

I’m quite sure I’ve told everyone in the world that thanks to my extremely generous friend Colleen I was able to talk with Joshua Henry as he was leaving the theater the night she and I saw Hamilton together in Chicago last September. I complimented his incredible job conveying anger on stage.

Me: “Were you spitting at the end?”

Aaron Burr: “Oh, did it hit you?”

Me, laughing: “We were in the upper balcony! But towards the end in the second act, even up there, it sounded like you were singing and gritting your teeth and spitting, all at the same time.”

Aaron Burr: (Smiling, you don’t even have to be able to see to know he was.) “That’s exactly what we’re going for.”

We’ll miss you, Josh (I call him Josh now, you know, we’re that close). But if any of you Safe & Sound blog readers are lucky enough to have tickets to see my friend Josh play Burr in San Francisco, trust me, you’re in for a treat. A suggestion: avoid buying tickets within spitting range.

When the stars make you drool just like pasta fazool

Recognizing that last year was not everyone’s favorite, the Chicago Tribune asked readers to submit stories for the paper to publish as a collection of short pieces defending poor 2016. Sharon Silverman submitted a shortened version of an essay she’d written for one of the memoir-writing classes I lead here in Chicago, and of course the Tribune was delighted to use it. You can link here to read Sharon’s short piece in the Tribune, but here, just for you Safe & Sound blog readers, is the original longer version that inspired Sharon’s submission.

It Doesn’t Get Better Than This

by Sharon Silverman

This summer I traveled with my grandson, Max, to Italy. It was one of the happiest times in my life! Just the two of us — together for sixteen days.

With only one carry-on bag and a backpack each we flew non-stop to Rome. Traveling light is my mantra, and Max succeeded by squishing his clothes into plastic zipper bags including his stuffed animal, Shleppy. Even a thirteen year old needs to have his favorite cuddly pet along for a journey.

Sharon and Max dining in Rome.

Sharon and Max dining in Rome.

There’s nothing like sharing the splendor of Rome with your grandson.

With his encouragement, I make it up the 551 steps of St Peter’s Dome. “Come on, Grandma. You can make it.” My wobbly knee, recently renovated through months of physical therapy, does not disappoint! Looking down into the basilica is an astonishing sight: tiny tourists moving through glistening marble structures and statues. Without Max’s prodding, I wouldn’t have done this.

In the Jewish Ghetto, we walk through history where 2000 Jews once lived. On October 13, 1943 they were forced into trucks transporting them to Auschwitz. We read their names and birthdates listed on golden plaques in front of the homes where they once lived. One marker identifies a three year old boy. We continue walking sadly, holding each other tight as we imagine the horror of that day.

Our travels continue to Naples. Exiting the train we try to find the hotel. It’s hot and steamy. The streets of Naples are dirty and smelly. We’re tired, hot, and hungry. We walk around for some time. Thank goodness we travel light.

At last we find it! Exhausted and relieved we collapse in our room to rest. In the next days, Pompeii, Vesuvius, and the Amalfi Coast make up for the squalor of Naples.

Our last week is an organized trip with grandparents and their grandchildren ages 11-15. We meet the group in Verona, and one night we are treated to the opera La Traviata in the large outdoor arena. I saw Aida here 51 years ago. Now I’m back with Max! Sharing this moment with him now makes me feel so joyful.

As Violetta takes the entire third act to die, Max comments, “This is so cheesy. Die already!” I chuckle with delight.

In Venice we stroll through the winding streets, ride in a gondola, and even make our own masks in a special mask making workshop. Max is happy making new friends with the children in the group, and I’m content leaving the daily planning to the trip organizers.

One of the grandparents is traveling with her grandson for the entire summer — 40 days — and Italy is only one stop. When Max hears this he says, “No offense, Grandma, but I wouldn’t want to be with you for 40 days.” We laugh, and I agree.

The last night, lying next to each other in our respective beds, Max says, “You are the best grandma. Thank you so much! I love you!”

It doesn’t get better than this!


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