Imagine spending the better part of your life with perfectly adequate vision -- adequate enough, in fact, that you rarely gave it a second thought. Then, midway through adulthood, your vision simply began to fade away.
That's what happened to Alan Gunzburg. The 51 year-old Cos Cob resident learned around age 30 that he had a heretofore undetected hereditary disease, retinitis pigmentosa. It's a genetic disorder that at first affects peripheral and night vision but then progresses to an overall decline in sight. "It was a challenge to move from being a completely independent person to one who needed help with everything from driving a car to pouring a cup of tea," he says. A father of two girls, he could no longer work. But Alan was not eager to settle for a life of doing nothing for himself.
After attending years' worth of meetings for people with disabilities and befriending an inspiring group of meeting-goers and dedicated volunteers, Alan was introduced to a representative from Fidelco Guide Dogs , a 50 year-old, Connecticut-based non-profit organization that arranges in-home/community placement of highly trained guide dogs for impaired or disabled people. He was accepted into the program a few months after applying (having generated enough criteria -- a wave of personal and doctors' referrals -- to prove his emotional fitness and physical need).
Fia, his seven year-old, 60-pound German shepherd and Alan have been constant companions throughout the four years since. "Fidelco helped integrate Fia into my house and my life. They came with her and asked me hundreds of questions and they shared their knowledge about how to make Fia a part of my family." He adds, "She came into my house, looked at me, rolled over and gave me her belly. It was a life-changing bond," says Alan.
Since bringing Fia into his household, which in addition to his wife of 16 years and his teenaged daughters also includes two other dogs and a couple of cats, Alan's life has indeed changed. "I go everywhere with her, from my daughter's school to the supermarket, the beach and Grand Central Station -- where, by the way, Fia led my family and me during rush hour straight to the Vanderbilt Avenue exit without missing a beat. People, he says, don't generally approach a blind person with a cane and strike up a conversation. But when there's a dog concerned, there are curious people -- strangers -- who are eager to speak with him. "She is an icebreaker in every conceivable way."
His trust in this uncannily bright and sensitive animal is complete. "She's been trained with 'intelligent disobedience,'" he says. Which means that Fia will not walk Alan off a train platform or into traffic even if he tells her to do so. "Not that I would, of course," he laughs.
When he first learned of his condition, Alan was constantly searching for a possible cure. But Fia's presence has changed his outlook, literally. "I don't expect my condition to be fixed," he says. "But now I try to use my experience to help disabled and blind people to be the best they can possibly be." He adds, "I'm a stay-at-home dad for right now, but I know there is more in store for me." Fia has empowered him beyond his own expectations. "I found my parachute," he says. "I just don't know what color it is."
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