The Girl with the Guide Dog
This Women's History Month we’re sharing stories of our wonderful women graduates, volunteers, and staff. The story below originally appeared in the December 2019 edition of The Guideway, Vol 73 No. 3, our newsletter. To sign up for The Guideway or for other information, please click here .
When she was 18 years old, Kelly Zarkewicz became visually impaired as a side effect from medical treatment. But for many years, she resisted getting a guide dog. In fact, she would barely acknowledge her vision loss to friends and family. Instead, she compensated and developed strategies to act as if she was fully sighted. Until she couldn’t act anymore.
The girl who was sick
A “regular active teenager” who was a swimmer and a dancer, Zarkewicz was 15 years old when she developed flu-like symptoms. Within a very short time, she was in the hospital with liver failure.
She received a transplant, but barely three weeks later, her body rejected it, and she was back in the hospital. She got a second liver, but there were complications this time, and she was hospitalized for three months.
Nonetheless, she returned to high school for the spring semester of her junior year. Nine months after her second liver transplant, Zarkewicz was diagnosed with leukemia. She began chemotherapy and radiation treatment, but she still managed to finish high school on time with the rest of her classmates.
About three quarters of the way through her treatment, Zarkewicz noticed a change in her vision. She was attending a local community college at the time and taking a sign language course. “I realized I couldn’t follow the instructor’s hands anymore,” she says.
Her doctors told her the vision loss was a rare side effect from the chemo drugs. “At 18, I was left with no vision in my right eye and very little vision in my left.”
It was devastating, but “eager to get on with my life and close this medical chapter, I worked with a mobility instructor,” Zarkewicz says. She learned how to maneuver with her minimal vision, but “I refused to use any adaptive equipment and refused to use a white cane.” Her goal was to ensure no one would know she was visually impaired.
It was a goal she worked on for the next 20 years.
Zarkewicz found her collegiate home at Manhattan College, where she majored in elementary education with a minor in psychology. Almost no one knew she had vision issues.
“Faking it” became a way of life. “For so long, I was known as ‘Kelly, the girl who was sick,’” she says. “I didn’t want to be known as ‘Kelly, the girl who couldn’t see.’”
It was during college that she met her future husband, Andrew. As she recounts the story, they were hanging out when he asked her for the TV remote. When she couldn’t find it, he asked: “What’s wrong with you, are you blind?” and she admitted, “Yeah, I’m visually impaired.” Today, she says with a laugh, when he tells the story, “He says he felt so bad, he had to marry me.” The two have been together since 2001 and were wed in 2008.
After a brief stint as a teacher, Zarkewicz realized it wasn’t the career for her. She moved to Queens, New York, to make commuting easier and got a job in Manhattan. She loved working in the city. “I navigated the crazy streets of New York City while I worked as an executive assistance and HR manager,” she says. She memorized routes, layouts of places, subway stations, and steps – all to maintain the illusion that she was fully sighted. “I was a good actress and used a lot of tricks.”
But the intricate façade of vision Zarkewicz had created came tumbling down in 2014. The company she worked for moved from the street grid of midtown to the meandering and confusing streets of lower Manhattan.
The company’s new offices also presented mobility issues. The lobby’s floors and walls were all the same color, and her office walls were all glass. “There was no contrast and everything looked flat,” she says. “My coworkers could obviously tell that there was something really wrong, and I was forced to ‘come out’ about my visual impairment.”
Zarkewicz worked with an orientation and mobility instructor again, this time to learn how to use the white cane, but she would still hide it in her bag as soon as she got to her destination. “I hated using the ‘stick,’” she says. “It was so frustrating. It got stuck in cracks. Nobody moved out of the way.”
The girl with the guide dog
In 2017, Zarkewicz’s vision deteriorated again. “I felt very anxious walking, and I didn’t want to leave the house anymore,” she says. For so long, she had tried so hard not to let her visual impairment define her, but her old strategies were no longer working.
Several years previously, she had applied for a guide dog after internet research led her to the Guide Dog Foundation. She applied, was accepted, and even started class. However, she wasn’t ready and returned home without a dog. A few years later, she tried again. She began home training with a field rep, but unfortunately, her training had to be terminated when the dog developed working issues. (The dog was eventually released from all programs and adopted.)
But even though it had a mere 24 hours, working with a guide dog had felt right this time. It left Zarkewicz more resolute than ever: she was ready and she would be successful with her next dog.
To build up her O&M skills, she began walking more with her white cane and feeling OK about it. “It wound up being a positive thing for me,” she says.
When she found out it would be a long wait for another home training, Zarkewicz decided she was ready to attend an on-campus class. She was invited to join the July 2018 class.
When she and guide dog Robin met for the first time, “it felt really, really good.” Robin is a yellow Labrador Retriever. “It was important for me to see the dog’s face,” Zarkewicz says. “I wanted that connection.”
Except for her husband, no one else knew Zarkewicz was getting a guide dog. “I didn’t want any pressure,” she says. “I just wanted to be successful. When we graduated, then I would tell everyone.”
She invited her family to her home for a party when she returned home. To the tune of “Rockin’ Robin,” she emerged from another room to present her new guide dog to her parents, sister, and brother-in-law. “Everyone was so excited for me,” she says.
Now that they are a team, Zarkewicz feels more confident and comfortable. “I no longer have that anxious tightness in my chest when I walk,” she says. “I used to hate reaching for the cane when I left the house every day, but now I love reaching for the leash. I finally feel like myself again.”