Leader dog helps Stahlman maneuver through the world

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 24, 2008

Jacque Stahlman sees life differently now. After suffering a stroke eight years ago, Stahlman underwent brain surgery in an effort to stop the strokes from happening again. The surgery saved her life, but took most of her sight.

The doctors first cauterized the blood vessels in Stahlman’s brain that had caused the stroke.

“They fixed as many as they could, but they told me it was like putting a sand dam in a creek,” she said. “It would eventually wash out.”

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So the doctors then removed the vessels that had been cauterized. It was this procedure that drastically changed Stahlman’s life.

“I thought the surgery would be easy,” she said. “I had procedures done before and they were fine.”

After the surgery, Stahlman said she lost “about a month of life.”

“It took me about a year or so to recover from that,” she said. “I had to learn to do everything all over again. Life was changing every time I turned around.”

Not only did the surgery take a month of her life, it also robbed her of her vision. She essentially lost sight in the right half of each eye. When she woke from the surgery, everything to her right was completely black, while everything to her left was still clear. Along with the struggles of learning to read and write and talk again, she now had to learn to see again.

“What she sees, she can see pretty well,” Stahlman’s brother Cappy Stahlman said. “But what she doesn’t see, she can’t see at all. It’s just a straight line down her eyes, like a plate broke in half.”

Without being able to see things to her left, Stahlman walked into door frames, light poles and street signs.

“I had several accidents from running into things,” Jacque said. “I broke my arm and had stitches several times. I walk a lot and was tripping and hitting all sorts of things.”

Jacque decided she had to do something, so she got a cane. The cane helped, but Jacque thought a dog might be more useful.

“The first time I tried to get a dog, they said my eyes were too good,” she said. “At that point I decided that they probably were.”

So Jacque went on bumping into things and hurting herself until friends suggested she try to get a dog again.

“I told them my eyes were too good, but they saw me using my cane and thought a dog would help,” she said.

With her friends’ help, Jacque was able to get a guide dog from an organization in Michigan.

“They sent someone to Natchez to talk to me and see how I walk,” she said. “I figured at that point that they would say no.”

Three weeks later, Jacque got the news — she had been approved to get a dog. The organization, Leader Dogs for the Blind, flew her to Michigan for three weeks of training to learn how to use the guide dog.

“I really had to be trained and introduced to the dogs,” she said. “The dog I got, Bella, was a lot better and more ready to go than I was.”

Jacque said her new dog Bella was a gift from God. The two regularly navigate the streets of downtown Natchez and Jacque now returns from her walks injury free. The small, 4-year-old black lab looks out for traffic, knows to stop at intersections and helps her owner dodge light poles and street signs. Communication between the two borderlines on telepathic. Before Jacque can direct Bella to stop at an intersection, the dog will slow to a halt. Bella seems to know what Jacque means, even when she has trouble saying it.

“She will see things that I would never see,” she said. “She might see a ditch or a step and she will lead me around it. I might not always get the commands out right, but Bella knows.”

Jacque walks the couple of blocks from her home to her office every day. She also walks downtown daily and Bella is always there to lead her. When she’s guiding Jacque, Bella proudly wears a harness that reads ‘do not pet me, I am working’ and she means it. When the two go for a walk, Bella is all work, all the time.

“When I go home, she’s a pet,” Jacque said. “But the rest of the time she’s working.”

Cappy said he can’t believe just how well trained Bella is.

“She is a machine, a real working dog,” he said. “She can’t be distracted when’s she on the job.”

A lot has changed for Jacque in the past eight years — she had a stroke, lost her vision, got a dog. The list goes on and on. But one of the biggest changes for the 62-year-old is something that’s not so obvious to those who don’t know her well.

“Before, she was very much an introvert,” Cappy said. “After the stroke, she really became an extrovert. She used to have a small number of close friends. But since all of this, everyone knows her in town.”

Linda Johnson, who works with Jacque, said before the surgery she would go to work and went home and that was it.

“She made work her life back then,” Johnson said. “She’s much more outgoing now.”

Jacque is very much aware of the change in her personality and said she likes who she is now better than who she was before.

Not only does Jacque have more friends now, she also has more hobbies. Not long after her surgery, she took up the arts of stained glass and pottery.

“For a couple of years, I did a lot of stained glass work,” she said. “Then I decided to get into pottery.”

Four years later, she still goes to her studio space weekly and works on her art. Of course, Bella comes with her and quietly waits in the corner, ready to work when Jacque needs her.

“Since I couldn’t read very well or do other things, I tried to find out what I needed to do,” she said. “God has really taken care of my life, and he sort of told me to try these things.”

If Jacque’s life has one theme, she said it’s that God has always taken care of her.

“God has played such a big role in my recovery,” she said. “After the surgery, I didn’t want to come back, but God had other plans. Without him, I wouldn’t have made it.”

Maybe Jacque is right, maybe God is the reason she’s made it this far. But the little black lab that takes her on walks every day sure is leading the way.