Navigating life’s winding road with a guide dog at her side

Baseball

Lorri Bernson, with her guide dog, Carter, at her side, threw out the opening pitch at a Dodgers game in 2011 despite being legally blind. Andy Holzman/Daily News Staff Photographer

Laughing with a friend, a tall blonde visibly groped at her surroundings while ascending a flight of stairs at a posh Los Angeles eatery. Witnessing the awkward display, a fellow patron cast a disapproving glance and asked, “Liquid lunch?”

Those icy words, uttered nearly 20 years ago — but never forgotten — could not have been further from the truth. The blond woman, Lorri Bernson, is legally blind.

Now 50, Bernson recalls the stranger’s ignorant words from her office at the Sylmar campus of Guide Dogs of America (GDA), where she is the nonprofit organization’s media and community liaison. It looks like the workspace of any other person: Towers of boxes occupy the corner, a maze of sticky notes covers her desk, and when her cell phone suddenly emits Bobby McFerrin’s late-’80s hit, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” she reaches down to silence the tune without missing a beat.

It often throws people — like the businesswoman who, while recently on the phone with Bernson, declared that she didn’t sound blind.

“I knew what she meant,” Bernson said. “I was probably supposed to sound a little more pathetic. I don’t sound like someone who has lost her vision and experienced that loss.”

She attributes her positive outlook largely to how her life changed when she received her first guide dog, Nigel, in 2002. Her current capacity at GDA puts her in the unique position of being able to reassure first-time guide dog users through her own experience.

“I know where they’re coming from, I know what they’ve been through, and I know how much potential their lives have with a guide dog,” said Bernson, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley attending Temple Beth Hillel.

The daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Bernson is one of an estimated 21.5 million Americans over the age of 18 who deal with vision loss, according to a 2010 National Center for Health Statistics report. Of those, more than two-thirds are under 65.

Bernson first encountered vision problems in 1994, when diabetic retinopathy cast a cloudy haze over her right eye. Nearly 50 percent of those living with diabetes — both Type 1 and Type 2 — will experience some form of retinopathy, a condition that often goes undiagnosed in its early stages when tiny blood vessels in the retina first begin to swell.

As it progresses, the vessels hemorrhage, creating a cloudy haze or spotted filter through which the person views the world. Various laser surgeries can correct part of the vision loss or slow its progression, but, for many, legal blindness is the end result.

The progression can be quick. Bernson continued to work in the licensing department at Paramount Pictures while undergoing a six-month period of assorted surgeries to try to correct the faltering vision in her right eye. Then, in a matter of seconds, her left eye began to take a similar path. Another series of surgeries followed.

“It was a roller coaster,” she said. “ ‘Am I going to be totally blind? Wait, I can see a little bit. No, I lost it …’ ”

After seven years, Bernson was left with no vision in one eye and a hazy, pinhole’s worth of vision in the other. Married at the time, she initially settled into her blindness somewhat privately.

“I hadn’t accepted the blindness to the point of wanting to use the white cane, because then you can’t fake it anymore,” Bernson said. “I mean, you can fake it pretty well if you want to … nonchalantly hold your friend and it doesn’t look that different — until you get to the restaurant and fork an empty bite into your mouth. That’s when people catch on.”

A college-educated former tennis player with a deep-seated independent streak, Bernson soon realized she needed more out of life. She began researching guide dogs and learned that a requirement was the ability to travel independently with a cane.

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