Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Fear of Fido leads to a contretemps

“The doctor would like to see you without the dog,” said the retina specialist’s technician in the waiting room in a suburban Chicago hospital. I had arrived for an examination and a procedure that may or may not save the failing sight in my right eye. My service dog had accompanied me.

When, a month before that appointment, age-related macular degeneration (AMD) in my right eye was diagnosed by an ophthalmologist in Upper Michigan, I was naturally upset. I have been totally deaf for 74 of my 77 years. Becoming blind as well would send me paddleless up a dark branch of shit creek.

The Michigan specialist injected a drug into the eye to slow down the disease and handed me off to a new ophthalmologist in Illinois, where we spend our winters, with a recommendation for a second injection in a few weeks. Now my wife Debby, my dog Trooper—a fuzzy little schnoodle—and I were back home, and it was time for the second jab.

The Chicago technician’s words shocked Debby, who had accompanied me with Trooper to the appointment.

“That is illegal,” she said. “The ADA says that a service dog cannot be separated from the person he serves.”

She spoke the truth. The rules of the Americans with Disabilities Act give me the right to take Trooper just about everywhere, including doctor’s offices as well as restaurants, movie theaters, buses and trains. By law a service dog is an item of medical equipment, not a pet. Trooper, who alerts me to sounds, is an extension of myself, just as a prosthesis would be for a legless person. Over the almost two years we have been together, we have visited many doctors without incident.

The tech disappeared.

After a few minutes he returned and said, “The doctor is afraid of dogs.”

“Fear of dogs,” I said, “does not trump a service dog handler’s legal right to medical services.”

I knew the doctor spoke a Southwest Asian language as well as English, and speculated that she might be an immigrant—and possibly have a religious rather than psychological aversion to dogs. But that wasn’t for me to judge.

The tech disappeared again.

After ten or fifteen minutes we were ushered into an examining room, followed by a hospital administrator who spoke with a foreign accent that was difficult to lipread.

“The doctor is very afraid of dogs,” she said.

“Henry is a deaf man losing his vision,” Debby said. “This office has to step up!”

The administrator tried to broker a compromise. What If Debby took Trooper out of the room while the retina specialist examined me?

“I communicate by reading lips,” I said. “I have never met this doctor and have no idea if I would be able to lipread her easily.”

“I’ll interpret for you,” the administrator said.

“I can barely understand you,” I said. (She also had a hard time with my breathy deaf speech.) “I need my wife with me to help me understand what’s going on. And the dog must be with either of us.”

This administrator, despite projecting a calm and reasonable mien, clearly knew little about deaf people. She didn’t offer the services of a sign language interpreter—which would have been useless, since I don’t know sign. She also just could not grasp that being blind and deaf was a potential calamity, let alone that I needed to be fully informed of every detail of the examination and the ensuing procedure.

Much to-and-froing ensued.

I quickly realized that digging my heels in and demanding that the doctor swallow her fears to give me that vital injection would probably be counterproductive. If she really had a fear of dogs, her hand likely would be shaky, and that is not an ideal condition for a jab in the eyeball.

But I saw a way out, even though the clueless administrator couldn’t. I knew that there was another retina specialist—let’s call her Dr. X—in the same practice, at another location. If an appointment could be arranged that week with her, I told the administrator, that would solve the problem with the eye, if not with the dog.

“I’ll have to see if she’s afraid of dogs,” the administrator said.

I stifled a sharp retort, and she left the room.

When she returned, she was smiling. “It will be okay,” she said. “Dr. X is not afraid of dogs and will be able to see you Friday.”

That subsequent visit with Dr. X went very well indeed. She is extraordinarily lipreadable. She thought Trooper was adorable and Trooper thought she was adorable. He lay calmly next to Debby in a corner of the examining room while the medical providers went about their business.

In fact, the entire reception we received at this branch of the medical practice was so lovely that I thought advance word had come down from an apprehensive hospital management to treat the deaf guy and his service dog with kid gloves. I was offered the services of a sign interpreter, but I declined with thanks. Sometimes a little infamy helps.

What’s more, Dr. X thought the condition of my right eye’s macula, the center of the retina, was so good that I did not need an injection this time. She thinks it is possible that I may not have AMD in that eye at all. It could be a random event, she said, in which tiny blood vessels in the retina burst and caused an opaque smudge in my vision. That’s because the affected area is not dead center in my sight, as is usual with AMD, but slightly below and off to the right. My vision in that eye is still 20/20 (with glasses).

So there is hope. My next evaluation is in a month. We’ll be keeping an eye, so to speak, on the condition. Also, I’ll continue with a diet heavy on spinach (which I fortunately like) and other veggies reputedly beneficial to eye health. I’ll also keep taking a daily capsule of vitamins that some studies say help the eye and some studies say make no difference. Better to err on the side of caution, said Dr. X. I have no problem with that.

A subsequent consultation with a daughter-in-law who is a trained medical ethicist persuaded me that the doctor with a fear of dogs—if that is what it was—has rights, too. In some situations, canine aversion can be a debilitating psychological condition—indeed, a disability.

It’s not necessary to declare that one person’s rights under the law are more important than those of the other. It’s better, morally and ethically, to try to find an alternative solution. That is what I had unwittingly happened upon when I thought of Dr. X.

These events taught me another important lesson: When making an appointment with a new medical provider, I should always announce that I will be accompanied by a service dog. That is not legally required. It’s just good practical sense.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Annals of Bad Lipreading

“He writes for anonymous websites,” said Debby as a speaker took the lectern at a memorial service we attended this afternoon.

I turned that over in my mind, wondering about the legal, moral and ethical implications of such a pursuit. What were the perils of such ventures into the Dark Web? Exactly what kind of a person was this?

Afterward I asked Debby her thoughts about someone who trafficked on anonymous websites.

“Not anonymous,” she said. “Cannabis. Cannabis websites.”

My lipreading skills have gone to pot.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Invictus

Out of the night that covers me
Black as the Pit from pole to pole . . .

I was about ten years old when I had to memorize William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” for a fifth grade class. My father had insisted on this 1875 poem, and I resented it mightily. He evidently thought the fearless, defiant, stiff-upper-lip verses (“Invictus” is Latin for “unconquered”), written in the face of debilitating illness, was just the thing to inspire a little boy struggling with total deafness. (I didn’t need to be reminded of that.)

Besides, “It matters not how strait the gate . . . “ “In the fell clutch of circumstance
. . .” Whatever did those phrases mean? I was just too young.

As I grew older, I adopted the cynical sensibility of postmodernism and dismissed the verses as mawkish and self-dramatizing, “the most widely known bad poem in English,” as the middlebrow critic John Ciardi declared. To my mind it was a garish Thomas Kinkade word painting for rustic living rooms. It provided Timothy McVeigh’s last words before his execution. 

Still, Nelson Mandela loved it and recited it to his fellow inmates on Robben Island. Clint Eastwood made a pretty fair movie out of that story (I wish I could have heard Morgan Freeman’s rendition of the poem). It helped John McCain survive a North Vietnamese prison. Prince Harry created an Olympics for wounded soldiers and called it “the Invictus Games.”

To modern critics “Invictus” has more than pop-cultural legs. They recognize that with farsighted realism Henley broke the florid Victorian mold of spiritual poetry, helping open the road for the fierce anger of World War I poets, soldiers trapped in circumstances not of their own making.

When I finally reread “Invictus,” a few days after being diagnosed with macular degeneration—possible blindness is a terrifying prospect for a deaf person—I cried. My dad was smart. I think he knew that someday I would  appreciate “Invictus” because I would need to.

I never understood that gift until now.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Macular degeneration

Courtesy All About Vision
Back in 1999, I reviewed an inspiring memoir called Twilight, by Henry Grunwald, for the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

Grunwald had been the longtime editor of Time magazine as well as a distinguished author, and was Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Austria. In 1992 he was diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration, in which “the sufferer sees everything through an ever thickening haze.” AMD is incurable and at the time always led to near blindness, its victim unable to read. Grunwald was 69 years old at the time of diagnosis and lived for 13 more years until his death at 82 in 2005.

Twilight is a small but magnificent book, candid and graceful, full of coping, humor and imagination. It’s one of the books I most remember from my 33-year career as a book review editor and critic. I’m still proud of the review as one of the best I ever wrote.

How ironic, then, that just the other day I was diagnosed with macular degeneration.

I had awakened one morning last week with a large grey-brown spot in the landscape of the vision in my right eye, a spot that I could not see through. It is off to the side and not in dead center.

Wet AMD, said the retina specialist a few days later at Ironwood in the Yooper North Woods. The trouble is blood vessels growing wild behind the retina and leaking, causing damage to the macula, the part of the retina responsible for central vision. It cannot be cured. If I didn’t do anything about it, the blank spot would rapidly grow and I’d go blind in that eye within six months. 

Injections directly into the eye can slow down the progress of the disease for quite some time, possibly years, the specialist said.

What about the other eye? There were some very slight indications of possible “dry” AMD, normal for my age, he said. There was a 50 per cent possibility it could worsen over time.

The decision was a no-brainer. I had the injection into the right eye—of Avastin, a drug originally formulated in 2004 to stem bleeding in colorectal cancer but now widely used “off label” by ophthalmologists to  treat wet AMD. Studies show it works  as well as injections of two similar but staggeringly expensive drugs, Lucentis and Eyelen. Avastin costs about $50 a dose while Eyelen is $1,800 and Lucentis is $2,000. (Naturally Medicare pays for all three.)

What was the shot like? “You’ll feel pressure,” the retina specialist said. “You’ll feel a prick,” his technician said. They were both right. On a pain scale of 1 to 10, I’d call it a 3—and the hurt was mercifully short, just a second or two.

At the end of this month we’re going back to winter quarters in our Chicago suburb, and we’ve arranged for a followup injection in October. There will be a third a month later, after which a reassessment, and perhaps injections for the rest of my life—as long as they work.

So I have the kind of hope that Henry Grunwald never enjoyed. Of course, our cases are different in that I’m totally deaf. Not to put too fine a point on it, functional blindness would send me up a very dark branch of shit creek.

I don’t pretend to be as distinguished a writer as Grunwald, but still will follow his example in chronicling a disease that affects millions of people around the world. Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Not a piddling matter


A westbound Canadian calls at Capreol, Ontario, in 2007, when Debby and I last rode that magnificent transcontinental train from Toronto to Vancouver.
The days are dwindling to the last big train trip Trooper and I will take for the book-in-progress, Places We Have Peed: Traveling with Service Dogs in North America. (Christine Goodier, a retired travel magazine editor who lives in Sarasota, Fla., is my co-writer. She also has a service dog, Raylene, a Lab and fellow graduate of Trooper’s at Dogs for the Deaf in Central Point, Oregon.)

But I’m a little nervous about this journey, to begin November 3.

It’s a coast-to-coast Canada trip aboard two famous trains, the Ocean between Halifax and Montreal, and the world-renowned Canadian from Toronto to Vancouver. (We’re also taking a connecting regional train between Montreal and Toronto.)

The Ocean is a reliable performer, almost always getting into Montreal on time or just a little late.

But the Canadian’s timekeeping has been in a shambles all summer. It’s not just a little late every day but big-time late—six hours behind schedule into Vancouver if it’s lucky, as many as 20 hours if it isn’t.

Why?

The big problem is the long, long freight trains (20 to 30 per day) the Canadian National, over whose tracks the Canadian runs, has been fielding this year, thanks to an upturn in the economy. The 2 1/2-mile-long double-stack container trains, with 150 or more cars and multiple locomotives, typically are longer than the sidings on the line. The Canadian has had as many as 36 passenger cars in its consist, but is still short enough to fit into a CN siding.

So guess which train has to go ”into the hole” when they meet from opposite directions on the prairie? Yep. Every time. Also, if the Canadian creeps up on a dawdling freight going in the same direction, the slowpoke can’t pull over on a siding to let the passenger train go by.

So what? you might ask. You get more time on the train. What’s not to like?

Beside the happenstance that all the glorious daytime scenery in the Canadian Rockies might vanish into the night, there’s also the problem of Trooper’s toilet needs.

The Canadian is carded to stop for long minutes at several crew change and fueling points about six to eight hours apart, ordinarily enabling us to get off for a leisurely whiz and poo without inconveniencing anyone. But when these stops don’t come on time, that means I must beg the train manager (there are no conductors on VIA’s trains) to ask the engineer to halt the Canadian at little two-by-four flag stops that it otherwise would blast through at high speed.

We’re lucky that it’s VIA Rail’s policy always to accommodate the needs of service dogs, even though doing so might make a late train even later. Still, I hate to add to the delay.

Possibly by November, things will be better and delays will be minimal. But I’m not counting on it.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Bringing things up to date

Trooper ashore at Anchorage.
It has been a few months since my last post, primarily for reasons of sloth. This morning, however, I am experiencing an unaccustomed burst of ambition. And so here I be.

In June Debby, Trooper and I took a two-week round-trip Alaskan cruise from Seattle to Seattle aboard the Holland-America ship Amsterdam, in service of our 50th wedding anniversary celebration. It was one of those trips that went exceedingly well, with no unpleasant adventures.

Trooper in our stateroom. He would have slept on that bed—if we let him.

We had chosen Alaska because there was no need to obtain annoying veterinary paperwork to take Trooper ashore at foreign ports for a few hours' visit. Many countries, especially Caribbean island nations, require not only rubber stamps but also special immunizations, some of which are quite expensive. All we needed for Alaskan ports was a valid rabies certificate, and that is a state requirement—not a national one.

We did get a Form 7001, the classic International Animal Health Certificate, signed by our veterinarian—just in case U.S. customs and immigration decided to be difficult during re-entry to the mainland at Seattle. It didn't.

We took a constitutional around the promenade deck several times a day.

There was just one brief awkward moment when an Alaskan venue refused entry to Trooper. A young woman said "No dogs! No dogs!" at the door of the Baranov Museum on Kodiak Island.

"He's coming in!" said our tour guide.

"No dogs!"

Trooper's customized relief box on the stern of the ship.
At which the tour guide quickly proceeded to educate the young woman, who spoke with a Russian accent, about U.S. service dog laws. We suspect she may have been an exchange student doing an internship at the museum, named for the governor when Alaska was a Russian colony.

And that was that.

Baranov Museum, Kodiak Island.
There was one small incident in the ship's buffet restaurant that was slightly painful.

It was the height of lunchtime, and crowds were milling from serving station to serving station. I was trying to thread Trooper through the forest of legs to safety when I momentarily took my attention off him to apologize to a woman whose elbow I had jostled.

Just then a waiter pushed a multilevel cart of desserts past us. The bottom shelf, laden with pies and tarts, lay right at the level of Trooper's head, and . . .

There were witnesses, both passengers and crew. But the captain never did summon us before the mast for a tongue-lashing.

The lesson: Even highly trained service dogs are still dogs, and dogs will always go for the main chance if they think they can get away with it.




Friday, May 26, 2017

Sugar gliders? Reptiles?

I'm at work on the section about airline travel for Places We Have Peed: Traveling with Service Dogs in North America, and have spent the last few hours checking individual airlines' service dog policies. They're all basically similar, although a few have some odd rules.

JetBlue, for instance, won’t allow service animals in training in airliner cabins, nor will it permit as service or emotional /psychiatric support animals “hedgehogs, ferrets, insects, rodents, snakes, spiders, sugar gliders, reptiles, non-household birds (farm poultry, waterfowl, game bird & birds of prey), animals improperly cleaned and/or with a foul odor, animals with tusks.”

Sounds as if I'll have to leave my assistance cockroach at home. Sorry, Archy.