Meet our clients

Created on: 28 November 2018

Source: Célia Melchus

A guide dog – more than a pet: A companion and a true friend

As Christine Mifsud, a warm-hearted woman with a bubbly, infectious laugh, opened the door to her home in Birkirkara. We could smell the aroma of a baked lasagne she was preparing for her family. Christine, 38, is married to Stanley. They have twin girls, 19, who are working in a catering business.
Christine has a severe visual impairment. She lost her eyesight aged 20. During her pregnancy, her diabetes was uncontrolled, and this affected her vision. “Soon after I had the girls, my vision started to deteriorate at a rapid pace and from, August to the following March, I already had two operations and lost the sight of one of my eyes.
“Then, after my girls' first birthday, we spent about a year and a half travelling to Moorefields Hospital in London and they managed to save this 20% vision which I still have in my other eye.” Christine wears glasses to clear the blurriness, since on top of the visual impairment, she also has blurred vision.
For the first ten years after she became severely visually impaired, Christine would go out by herself, feeling the walls and the pavements, and sliding her feet slowly to test if there was any change in the surface she was walking on. But at night, it was difficult, and Christine was worried she would fall down stairs. She never used a white cane, because there was no proper qualified instructor at that time, and she did not like dogs. She thought they were dirty and was scared of them. When she saw a dog coming up to her, she used to cross the road.
She clicked when she met Mazy, the guide dog of the current Chairman of the Malta Guide Dogs Foundation, Joseph Stafrace. “I fell in love immediately,” she said. Then, she started doing awareness promotion for the MGDF. Michael Calascione, then a member of the Foundation's board, used to take his team of visually impaired persons around schools and different kinds of societies and associations. “And my need, my desire for a guide dog went sky high. I couldn't wait for one... I had a very long wait because it was almost two years from the first time I applied.”
Then, Christine went to Messina in Sicily to get Winny, her current guide dog, in 2010. She had to go alone and left her girls, then aged 10, with her husband and her mother, because it was the belief of the then Chairman of the MGDF, the late Ron Colombo, that a visually impaired person has to be 100% independent when s/he goes for his/her guide dog.
Christine applied for an affectionate, jovial and bubbly guide dog, when she filled in the assessment form. As soon as she met Winny, they got on extremely well. Winnie is a friendly, gentle and energetic guide dog. “She was so very lovable. I think she is the perfect match for me.”
The training in Sicily lasted two weeks. The first week, Christine trained with Winny, got to know her, and then Winny would go back to the kennels. In the second week, Winny could stay with Christine in the hotel after the daily training. At first it was not easy to find a common routine. Christine was afraid that Winny would do her business in the hotel room.
So, she fed Winny early in the morning and took her out at 5 a.m. and at midnight. Then, Winny used to wake Christine up very early or late at night, so she would be taken out. It took Christine about three months to get used to Winny's habits and put Winnie into her own routine, but they managed.
In addition, the training with Winny in Sicily was hard, because Messina is quite a dangerous place – and not just for visually impaired persons. There are a lot of zebra crossings, lights which don't work, and cars parked on the pavement. She was amused to share an anecdote: “Once one of my friends was in front of me and he knocked over a scooter and 20 Vespa scooters came crashing to the floor, because they park them in a row on the pavement.
“There, I was very independent. I used to go out – to my amazement – with another two or three blind persons who knew their way around the area. We used to take the dogs for recreation, to do their needs. I felt very independent and I brought – thank God – that attitude back with me to Malta.”
When Christine came back from Sicily with Winnie, she saw loopholes for visual impaired in Malta as compared to Sicily. So, she started being active, especially on the MGDF board, where she was vice-president for three years. The foundation embarked on a number of important projects at that time, including the awareness promotion, and keeps these up.
At present, Christine still does promoting awareness sessions. She is also on the sub-committee for free runs and social events, working with MGDF Hon. Secretary Lilibeth Cachia and OM Specialist Rita Criminale. Besides, Christine is always trying to facilitate matters for all guide dog users and gives advice, listening to any issues they might be facing.
At home, Christine also had to impose her authority on Winny. Her instructor in Messina recommended that Winny had to obey her alone, when Winnie integrated with the family. “At first, I was very strict. It was very important... When I came home, they saw this beautiful dog. Winnie tells you: 'cuddle me'. The girls were younger, and she is very clever.
“She started to take advantage of the girls, even with my husband. She used to go to him four or five times in an evening because she wanted to go outside. I used to tell him: 'No, don't pay attention to her. Don't take her out; just ignore her.' She used to sit down there at the table and look. She didn't come next to my seat, but she used to go next to the girls and cry next to them.”
Christine is a dynamic and enthusiast person. She currently works at the Commission for the Rights of Persons with Disability (CRPD) as a customer care officer. She looks after the reception and takes part in different projects. One of the bigger projects aims to promote awareness about disability with a touch of humour.
She is currently working with Director John Mallia and other disabled persons on a comedy, called Fi Kliemna (In our own words). It is using drama and disability to teach children about disability, comedy and creativity. They will be going around schools in Malta.
On a typical working day, Christine and Winnie wake up at six in the morning and have a quiet moment together. She looks after Winnie, takes her out. “She is happy in the morning, bubbly. She watches dogs passing by and she greets them; she barks at them. Some of them come to our gate, so they greet each other.”
Then, Christine gets dressed, has a coffee, wakes up Stanley and goes to work by herself. Sometimes she gets a lift with Stanley either because of the weather of if she is running late. But it takes Christine and Winnie only around eight minutes to walk to the CRPD offices in neighbouring Psaila Street.
It is good exercise for Winnie, although it is not so easy because of the state of some of the pavements, especially when she had to pass through the old part of town to get to her former job at the Birkirkara local council. “The narrow streets with narrow pavements have obstacles, like steps protruding onto the pavement and the usual things, bin bags and the other things that are placed on pavements, like planters. So, it's more like an obstacle race.”
As soon as she gets to work, Christine has a coffee and a chat with her colleagues. Then she takes the voice mail off at work, and she start taking phone calls. She also uses the computer to check her e-mails and visit websites. The computer has got a special program that speaks to Christine, which allows her to use it.
Christine needs to be organised and tidy, so she can find everything she needs. All the application forms and other documents are put in the same place and this helps her to work well. She explains to her colleagues that they must not touch anything from where it is, and they understand and respect that. Her work is highly appreciated.
At the same time, Winnie too has her place at the CRPD office. “Winnie is spoilt. She has got a nice place in reception behind my desk. I put her blanket, water bowl; if she needs relieving, I'll tell someone to replace me. She just comes to touch me. It's not unusual, now she is getting older. She is sleeping more, and she stays the whole time with me because I work part time.”
At the end of the working day, Christine returns home and starts cooking, cleaning the house and doing all the necessary household chores. During this time, Winnie is off duty and relaxed. Christine also does the shopping, although sometimes, when she is at work, her mother does the shopping for her. Mostly in the evening Winnie accompanies Christine and Stanley when they go out to visit friends or their community, a Catholic movement, since they are involved in the local parish.
Christine has had Winnie for eight years. Nowadays, she couldn't do without a guide dog. Having a guide dog is very important for Christine's independence: “It is crucial. It's a part of my everyday life now,” she says with a serious tone. Thanks to a guide dog, Christine can lead an active life and can be helpful and useful to others.
Unfortunately, Christine has to prepare herself for Winnie's retirement because she is getting old, suffers from arthritis in the lower back and has started to slow down. Although she will keep Winnie as a pet when she retires, Christine explained her sadness. It will be a difficult step to change her guide dog. “It's really hard. It's a kind of bereavement because I have to adjust, and I can't...”
She has new projects and activities in mind for Winnie after retirement. She has nice neighbours close to her house with two dogs who could keep Winnie when she is working. “The nice thing is that she will have a full-time friend. The thing that worries me is how she will take it. I am more worried about her – that she'll be anxious and lonely – than about myself.”
Then, Christine would like a redeployment for Winnie, who is still an active dog. She wants to reach an arrangement for Winnie to be a rehabilitation dog for those in old people's home, persons who are alone or children who have undergone serious operations.
“But I want to keep Winnie. As she is getting older, I am trying to make peace with the fact that she will have to pass away. She is like having a friend, another daughter in the house. I don't consider her an animal because she almost speaks, as you can see. That will be a very hard part. It's more than losing a pet because she is more than a pet”. Also, Christine is deeply troubled about Winny’s last resting place, as the promise of an Animal Cemetery has been long in the agenda but still a long way to go.
Now, Christine is waiting for a new guide dog. She is on the waiting list and spoke with MGDF Guide Dog Mobility Instructor Luca Taliana about this next step. But there is once again a long process. Some puppies are in training at this moment and, once their training is completed, they have to be matched with clients like Christine. This allows her the time to prepare emotionally to receive and accept a new guide dog in her life – and a new chapter will be opened.