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At age 11, most children are getting ready to start their high school years, concerned about things like schoolwork, friendships and becoming a teenager. But for Louise Meadows, it was different.
It was at this young age, grade six, when she was diagnosed with a serious juvenile form of macular degeneration and told that within a few short years she would be legally blind. This was hard for Louise to come to terms with. She was a young person, still in her childhood, grappling with a diagnosis that was more commonly known to affect adults in their senior years.
“I don’t think I fully comprehended it. I think I was still a little bit too young to really understand that it was going to be a permanent thing. And I’d sort of think, ‘Oh, I must need glasses. Why can’t glasses help?’ Just very logical, child mentality,” Louise explained.
But her mother knew the implications of the diagnosis and could comprehend the challenges Louise would face in her future.
“I remember my mum was very, very quiet. When we got home, she went and sat outside with my grandfather, and I watched him comfort her as she cried. Mum recently asked if I remembered that day and although I do have faint memories, it’s only now that I understand the impact it would have on a mother hearing that news about her child.”
Looking back, Louise recalls the early stages of her declining vision and what it was like being a teenager with a disability.
“At times, I felt bitter and resentful. I’d wonder why this was happening to me. And I think those are certainly normal feelings for anyone to have when faced with that diagnosis—not just children and adolescents. I’m sure a lot of people would go through that stage of loss because you’ve lost something, and there’s grief.”
“I also suffered at the hands of bullies. I think many people could relate to that in some way. If there’s anyone at school that’s even remotely different, then they’re going to be the target of bullying.
“They try to pick you apart, piece by piece until you’re broken.”
But Louise, now 35, is far from broken.
“It was hard, but I’ve come through the other side of it,” she explains. “What I was being picked on for was completely and utterly out of my control. If someone wants to pick on you for having a disability, that’s on them. I’m stronger than that. I have to be.”
For children and young people dealing with a diagnosis such as Louise did, life can feel unfair and uncertain. Guide Dogs is here to help from these early days, providing emotional support to families and children navigating this time together. It’s services like this that you help deliver.
As she got a little older, Louise needed specialised support to maintain the active lifestyle she wanted.
Nearing the end of her schooling, Louise reached out to Guide Dogs and with the help of our highly skilled specialists, was introduced to the white cane and developed skills to navigate school safely.
Unfortunately, the cruelty Louise faced in school did not end there and as a young woman she faced the stigma and stereotypes that people who have a disability regularly deal with – being on the receiving end of judgemental comments more often than you or I might ever imagine.
“When I first went to university in New South Wales, I remember being told by one of the convenors of the program that she wasn’t sure how I had been allowed to get into the degree because there would be no way I would be employed at the end of it.”
“I can’t explain how confronting it was to have someone who had never met me speak to me like that. It was purely and simply based on the fact that I had a disability. It really rattled me and impacted my confidence. I started to question my own expectations of what I could achieve or accomplish in my life,” Louise recalls.
It’s heartbreaking to think that there are so many misconceptions out there and that our remarkable clients often experienced forms of prejudice simply because they have low vision or blindness.
It’s why we need your ongoing support to ensure Queenslanders living with a vision condition can live the life they want. The life they deserve.
Thankfully, Louise—already an incredibly resilient and determined young woman—soon found an increased confidence and support when she was matched with her first Guide Dog, a black Labrador called Hector.
“It’s like my world opened up once I found him and he became an extension of me.”
With Hector by her side, as well as the support from Guide Dogs, her friends and family, Louise was embarking on an exciting and fulfilling life.
Hector and Louise shared a bond that became incredibly important to Louise—he was exactly what she needed in every way.
“He was just so mentally robust,” she remembers. “I would just take him around train stations, people would be everywhere, and my anxiety would be through the roof but he would just be ducking in and out of people seamlessly.
“His confidence made me confident.”
“He was a really amazing dog to have. After everything I had been through, dealing with the diagnosis, the high school experience and navigating the constant blow of people demeaning and diminishing me, he helped make me feel so strong. We could do anything together.”
The pair were an unstoppable team for close to a decade. When eventually it became time for Hector to retire, their bond was so profound that Louise couldn’t bring herself to apply for another Guide Dog. She worried deeply that she would upset Hector.
“I had this horrible feeling that if I got a new Guide Dog he would feel replaced and it would affect him. He had a wonderful retirement but some of the great memories I have are of him when he was working and I was worried how he would take it if I worked with another dog.”
With Hector now enjoying retirement and no Guide Dog waiting in the wings, Louise returned to relying on her cane but admits she missed the freedom and safety that comes with having a Guide Dog.
“I made do, because I’m determined. But honestly, it was so challenging.”
For many people, working with a cane can be a viable option, but the freedom that comes from training and working with a Guide Dog can be life-changing. That’s why we rely on the support of people like you, so that we can continue to raise and train Guide Dogs that are expertly matched with their handler.
Your donation can mean the difference between someone simply managing their day-to-day life, or someone thriving.
Shortly after Hector’s retirement, Louise embarked on a trip to America with her best friend from high school, Alyssa.
Unfortunately, while Louise was overseas the unthinkable happened back home.
“I got a phone call from Mum on the last day of our trip. The second I heard her voice I knew something had happened to Heccy,” Louise recounted through tears.
“It was like he just decided that he didn’t want to be here anymore; that it was just too much for him. The vet was called over and she discovered that he had a very aggressive and fast-growing tumour in his neck. It was causing him absolute despondency and lethargy and would soon take his life.
“It was then and there that Mum had to make the really difficult decision while I was away to put him to sleep.”
For Guide Dog handlers, the loss of a Guide Dog is an intensely emotional experience, amplified due to the deep trust that is formed through a relationship where you’re literally putting your life in their paws.
On returning home to Australia a few days later, Louise said the loss was overpowering.
“The house felt empty. I felt empty. I was devastated.”
With Hector’s passing, Louise felt even more unsure if she would ever get a replacement Guide Dog.
“I thought there’s no way I could ever go through this, ever again. It was too hard. I just felt like his loss was so intense that there could never be another dog that could fill his shoes. This became my biggest barrier for the first year after Hector passed away.
“I kept saying to myself, there’s never going to be another dog like him. I might as well get used to not having one,” Louise explained.
She moved away from her mother’s house in Brisbane and started a new life in idyllic Airlie Beach, hoping the quieter pace and close-knit community would be all she needed.
But as Louise’s vision continued to deteriorate, getting by without a Guide Dog became more challenging, and ultimately, more dangerous.
“I got away with it for a little while. That’s how I kind of see it in my head, like I was getting away with determination and more truthfully, sheer luck. And then last year, I had two falls where I ended up in a moon boot for about six weeks at a time.
“And then one day I had a dangerous fall in town when I was leaving work. Two nearby police officers called an ambulance because they were worried that I had a head injury,” Louise recalled.
“I remember getting to the hospital and being put in a neck brace. I was lying there completely flat on my back, not able to move my head, just crying and crying. When my friend Tristan, who was my emergency contact, walked in he said, ‘Oh Lou, what have you done?’
“I just bawled my eyes out and I said, ‘I’m done. I need a Guide Dog. I’m done’.”
When Louise reached out to Guide Dogs, she completed the assessment process and was put on the waitlist for a second Guide Dog. Over the course of a few months, the team set about finding a budding partner in training who could be the next perfect match.
Little did the team know the extraordinary twist that would come about in this search.
While part of Louise was ready, another part continued to hold her back.
“When I first met my Guide Dog Mobility Instructor, Melissa, I shared my story of Hector. I remember saying to her that I could never find a Guide Dog like Hector. She said, ‘you’re absolutely right, there will never ever be another dog who can fill Hector’s shoes. The same goes for your second, third or fourth dog. You’ll always feel like you’re comparing them because your first Guide Dog will always be the most impactful, influential, life-changing dog you’ll ever have.’”
As she waited, her mental health also took a turn for the worse and she found herself isolating and finding less enjoyment in the activities she once loved.
“I wasn’t doing very well mentally,” Louise recalls of this tough time. “I was trying to get through my uni work, but feeling pretty horrible. Then out of the blue my phone rang with Melissa’s number, I thought ‘has someone said something to Melissa? Has my partner Clem rung Guide Dogs and said ‘Can you check in on Lou? She’s really not doing too well.’
“Melissa could tell straight away that I was struggling and she said, ‘Well, I’m really sorry that you’re feeling this way, but I think I might have some news to cheer you up’.
“As soon as she said that, I thought, ‘Oh my God, is it happening? Is it really happening?’”
Louise received the news that she could come to Brisbane to meet with some potential Guide Dogs.
“I just remember, from the minute I got off the phone, it felt like my life had changed again. I was crying with joy and I just remember ringing Clem at work and telling him. He was equally thrilled because he knew how long I’d waited and how important it was for me.
“I needed a Guide Dog, not just for my physical safety, but also my mental health as well to have that companion again. I was so ready.”
Little did Louise know at this point, the ideal match chosen for her was, unbelievably, a yellow Labrador, also named Hector.
When Melissa discovered that he could be a perfect match, she struggled with the concept of telling Louise, not sure which way the conversation would go.
“It’s very uncommon to have two Guide Dogs with the same name, let alone two with the same client.” she said.
“Louise came to visit us in Brisbane and I had two potential dogs lined up for her to meet and trial a walk with. I knew how hard it was for Louise after her first Hector passed away. He was her closest companion and had helped her overcome bullying and really grew her confidence.
“As we sat next to each other on the car trip, I was racking my brain thinking ‘how am I ever going to tell her one of these dogs is called Hector?’ I kept opening my mouth to tell her and then I’d clam back up. Finally, the moment came, and I just had to say it.
“Louise, there’s something you should know before you meet him. This Guide Dog is called Hector.”
Louise recalls her stomach flipped and she was overcome with shock. But when they met face to face, her shock instantly melted away and was replaced by joy.
“It felt like it was meant to be. The minute I met him, I just realised the only thing they have in common is the name. He wasn’t a replacement for Hector Senior, he was my new Hector Junior!”
Louise believes it was a sign that Hector was meant to be hers. A life-changing gift from Hector Senior.
“Funnily enough, you couldn’t find two dogs more completely different in every way! Hector Senior was a black lab, a little stocky, and protective. He also absolutely loved the water.
“Hector Junior is a yellow lab, he’s lean, fast and a little bit cheeky. And unlike Hector Senior he is not a fan of water! Which is ironic considering I’m on The Whitsundays. He is more than happy to sit on the sand or maybe awkwardly dip a paw into the water just to prove he can do it.
“They both love food though. They’re still Labs!”
“I’ve since found out that Hector Junior is one of the miracle litter pups from 2019. He was born very prematurely and I know it was touch and go for their survival at the time.
“It’s unbelievable to me because you wouldn’t find a more strong, dependable and perfect dog. Even his vet says he is the perfect example of a fit and healthy Labrador.”
Louise and her new Hector have been together for six months now and the spark he has brought back to Louise is obvious for all who know her.
Confident and active, Louise is often seen around The Whitsundays with Hector by her side; working out at the gym, accompanying her to early morning training sessions with her local outrigging club and enjoying the lifestyle that The Whitsundays is known for.
Hector also joins Louise on university placement as she finishes her Social Work degree, a passion project she was inspired to do through her life-experience as a person living with a disability and the experience of navigating the NDIS.
A truly inspiring woman, Louise is a strong advocate for the services offered by Guide Dogs and encourages people in her community to seek out support as soon as they can.
Hector has come so far and provided so much confidence to Louise, when less than three short years ago he was struggling to survive. Thankfully with the support of our generous community, Hector and his six siblings have thrived, three of whom are now working Guide Dogs.
“It just feels like so many miracles brought us together. The fact that Hector very nearly died at birth and to have him here saving my life every day. We’re both fighters and I feel so lucky that this has happened to me,” Louise shares.
It’s not luck that brought Louise and Hector together. It’s your generosity that made this possible, combined with Louise’s courage and resilience. She credits supporters like you with her new life.