Nicole Swingler was just 16 years old when her life changed forever. After contracting an unexpected inflammatory illness, she suddenly had to be rushed to the hospital, where her eyesight began to deteriorate rapidly.
“I lost my eyesight within six weeks, from full sight to absolutely nothing,” says Nicole. “While I was in hospital I kept believing it would come back, but when the doctors categorically told me I would never see again it really began to sink in. I had some down days, like anyone in the same position would, but I knew deep down that I just had to get on with my life as best as I could.”
Nicole’s no-nonsense attitude meant that she quickly bounced back — just four months later she was back at college studying for her A Levels, pursuing her ambition to begin a career working with children.
But things were still incredibly difficult. She says: “I was at an age where I was just starting to get my independence, and then it was suddenly taken away from me. My mom was absolutely amazing, and still is, but my sister has learning difficulties, so she wasn’t able to spend all her time with me one-on-one. I wanted to help out around the house like I always had, but I couldn’t even do small things like use the cooker or washing machine. It was extremely frustrating.”
Nicole tried to maintain her freedom outside the house by using a white cane to get around, but she struggled to adjust. “I didn’t know many routes, and it took so much time and concentration that I found it completely exhausting. I had friends who had guide dogs, and saw how it had made things so much easier for them. I knew what a huge difference it would make to my life.”
Two and a half years later, Nicole’s dream of becoming a guide dog owner herself came true. “It took a lot of patience, but I knew it would be worth the wait, and my guide dog trainer kept in contact with me all the time, so I knew I was still a priority to them,” she says. “I was at university when I got the call to say I had a potential match. They brought Misty to meet me at my home during the holidays, and straight away I knew she was the dog for me. We did a walk around the local area and she was absolutely perfect. I knew she would improve my life so much from the first step we took together.”
Bit by bit, Misty helped Nicole regain the independence she cherished. “She changed everything for me,” says Nicole. “I had been relying on someone else to guide me, but suddenly I could go to lectures by myself and pop to the shops on my own, the same as any other student.”
The new companions quickly became inseparable, and now have a unique connection. Nicole says: “Misty’s very attached to me, we have such a close bond. If I’m out of the room for five minutes she jumps up wondering where I’ve been — she follows me everywhere. She loves everyone and is such a big softie, which is great because when you have a guide dog as cute as she is, everyone wants to talk to you!”
Having graduated from her psychology degree this summer, Nicole is now planning her first step on to the career ladder — a landmark she now feels is within her reach, thanks to the independent lifestyle Misty has enabled her to lead. “I don’t know what will happen next, but I know I have the chance to chase my dreams, and that feeling is priceless,” she smiles.
And there’s another important goal on the horizon — Nicole is currently in training for the 109-yard sprint at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games! “I have always loved sport, and really wanted to make the London Games, but unfortunately I was quite ill and had to pull out of training. Thankfully, a year on from that, I feel strong enough to go for Rio.” None of this would have been possible without the confidence Nicole has gained from having Misty by her side.
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