'˜Neisha is like a friend to me'
Danielle Thomas was busy enjoying life as a teenager. At 17, she was learning to drive and studying catering at college.
But one night she went to bed with perfect vision – and woke up the next morning unable to see.
Tests revealed that she was suffering from a genetic condition called Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy and would never regain her sight.
It was devastating news. But five years on and guide dog Neisha has totally changed Danielle’s life and given her back the independence she so desperately craved.
‘I always had perfect vision up until the point I lost it,’ she says.
‘It went overnight. I woke up one day and it was very blurry. I thought it was because I was sleepy, but as the day went on I thought it wasn’t right.
‘I thought maybe I just needed a really strong pair of glasses, so we went to the opticians. I couldn’t read anything or see any of the letters.’
She adds: ‘The lady said walk towards the wall until you can read the letters and I ended up walking into the wall.
‘No-one believed me. They thought I was making it up. It’s not that I didn’t want to read it – I couldn’t.
‘After that it was backwards and forwards to the hospital. No-one knew anything about what had happened to my eyes.’
Danielle, from Highbury Grove in Cosham, was referred to Queen Alexandra Hospital to see eye specialists.
She had various appointments at the hospital, but still nobody knew what was wrong with her.
She then spent a week at Southampton General Hospital on steroids administered through a drip.
She had an MRI scan and a lumbar puncture – a procedure whereby fluid is taken from the spine for testing.
She also spent a further three weeks in hospital for a plasma exchange, which is a process of replacing the plasma in your blood.
‘The doctors said they had never seen anything like it before. No-one had seen this happen – especially overnight,’ Danielle says.
‘Then I had the test results from my lumbar puncture and they said it was genetic.
‘That was confusing because no-one else in the family has got anything wrong with their eyes.’
It was then that Danielle was given the devastating news that she would be visually impaired for the rest of her life.
‘I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it,’ she says.
‘I just kept saying “so I’m stuck like this forever? I’m never getting my vision back?”.
‘When I sat down, the consultant didn’t know how to word it. It was so upsetting for him too because I was so young.
‘He did so much to try to get my vision back. He was so empathetic.
‘My grandparents were waiting outside. I didn’t say a word to them all the way home. I think I was in shock and denial.
‘My mum was still at work, so I called her and said she had to come home. She was sat on the sofa and I was sat on the floor and I just cried when I told her. That was when it hit me. It all came out then.
‘It was so hard to adjust to, knowing that this was it.’
Danielle was forced to give up her catering course at South Downs College as well as her part-time job at McDonald’s. She also had to stop taking driving lessons.
‘That was the hardest thing for me,’ she says.
‘I was coming up to the time when I was thinking about doing my driving test. At that stage I was very confident in doing it, but that all stopped.’
She was referred to a key worker who visited the house and was tasked with helping Danielle to adjust to her new way of living.
She recalls: ‘My confidence just went. I felt vulnerable even opening the door. I used to just sit inside. I couldn’t do anything.
‘My key worker gave me a white cane, but at first I refused to use it. I remember being on my knees crying on the kitchen floor.
‘My mum gave up work to help me get around. I didn’t like being on my own. She was trying to help me get back up.’
Danielle found out about a group for partially sighted and blind people who met at Portsmouth Library. There, she learned how to touch type and how to read braille.
Shortly after that, Danielle decided she needed a guide dog.
‘It was quite a lengthy process,’ she adds.
‘It’s important to get the right bond with you and the dog. I’ve got a personality, but so has the dog and we have to match up.
‘I had to build my skills up, but I knew I wanted a guide dog so much that I was so determined. I was fighting to get a guide dog.’
Danielle had to attend an assessment day at a centre in Southampton. She was assessed to see if she met the needs for a guide dog.
‘When I got put on the list, mum and I cried. I just wanted a dog to get me out and about. When I had a call to say that I had a match, I was so excited.
‘They came to the house with the dog for a test. A few weeks later we had a bonding weekend.
‘She stopped me getting run over – that was scary. At that point in my training I knew I could trust her.’
Since then, Neisha has been by Danielle’s side every day. She won’t leave her for a second, even waiting outside the bathroom when she has a shower or uses the toilet.
‘Neisha built my confidence up so much. I felt that I was able to do things.
‘We could go off and do things.’
At that point, Danielle decided she wanted to go back to college. She knew that studying catering was no longer an option so she decided to give back in her own way by working to become a support worker to help other partially sighted people.
She re-sat her English and maths GCSE’s and passed and she also did a GCSE in psychology and an A-Level in health and social care.
She then went on to study social sciences at South Downs College and she did an extra course in counselling at Portsmouth College.
Alongside all of that, Danielle began volunteering for the Portsmouth and District Guide Dogs group.
And this summer, she found out she had passed all her exams and has just started studying rehabilitation for visually impaired people at Birmingham City University.
‘I was shocked and I cried when I got my place,’ she says.
‘I was so happy that I got in. It’s a lovely group and I have learnt so much already.’
Now, Danielle says she owes everything to Neisha.
‘She’s not just a dog - she’s like a friend to me. She’s part of the family. She’s a good companion. I would never want to be without her.’
GUIDE DOG BALL
Danielle still does her bit to support her local guide dog group.
She says: ‘Helping Guide Dogs For The Blind really means a lot, because of the support, confidence and independence I have been given back.
‘As the charity receives no government funding, and with the cost of each working dog being £50,000, it is so important to fundraise and the donations received from the public are so valuable.’
The Portsmouth and district support and fundraising group is organising a Guide Dog Ball on Saturday at 7pm at The Marriott hotel in Portsmouth.
The evening will include a three-course meal, a magician, a raffle, an auction, live music and much more.
Tickets cost £50 each or £80 for a pair. A table of 10 costs £400. There is a concessionary rate of £35 each.
To find out more, visit guidedogs.org.uk.