All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for July 2003

Blind woman battles hospital for dog

Companion would be her eyes, ears - But there's no room, official says

Jul. 14, 2003. 06:29 AM
Patricia Orwen
Social Policy Reporter
Toronto Star

Making her way alone down a long, dark, narrow hallway, Anna Ostapa returns to her room at Bridgepoint Hospital. It is the end of a sunny summer afternoon, a day without her sight, without her dog, and without hope.

Blind and confined to a wheelchair, Ostapa, 41, is battling the administrators of this Toronto health-care institution on the site of the former Riverdale Hospital who have denied her request to keep a dog who would be her eyes, her ears, her constant companion, and possibly even her lifesaver.

Her previous two specially trained dogs did all that.

A German shepherd named Diane once pulled her out of the path of an oncoming streetcar. Another time, Channel, her trusty yellow Labrador retriever, dragged her wheelchair home after her blood sugar dropped so low she nearly passed out.

"A dog is more than an extension of my eyes and arms and legs ... it becomes a part of me," says Ostapa, who suffers from an array of disabilities, including epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and diabetes.

Bridgepoint chief executive officer Marian Walsh says the facility simply doesn't have any private rooms available for Ostapa, and she would need one to accommodate a dog.

And legislation governing guide dogs does not stipulate that they must be allowed in a health-care facility.

For 10 years, Ostapa relied on her first dog, Diane. After Diane's death in 1991, Ostapa adopted Channel, a trained guide and special-needs dog.

Four years ago, Ostapa was hospitalized for several months and Channel was retired to the home of a hospital worker.

Today, Ostapa is at a loss to understand why Bridgepoint won't let her replace Channel.

Angry and depressed, she's hired a lawyer to put her case before the Ontario Human Rights Commission. But she hopes those in charge of the facility will change their minds before things go that far. "It is a simple mobility-rights issue," says Ostapa's lawyer, Nils Riis. "Other hospitals have accommodated her with a dog because a dog improves her quality of life and keeps her safe. ... We believe this hospital should do the same."

Riis says he knows of no other case involving a blind person in a health-care facility who has had to fight for the right to have a guide dog.

Ostapa has been on a waiting list for 10 years to get into an apartment building that provides medical assistance. She also tried to move from Bridgepoint to another facility, but it also wouldn't allow a dog.

Today, all she has is her white cane. And it has not prevented a number of near-accidents.

"One time, I hit a patient in the hallway," Ostapa recalls. "Outside, I hit a car that was parked in the wrong spot. I also bumped a baby carriage, which really freaked me out.

"I would have been gone from here by now if I'd had the dog," said Ostapa it would enable her to be more independent.

Born one of triplets three months prematurely in 1962, tiny Anna, her brother David and her sister Natalka were not expected to survive the week.

Her infant brother died that Friday. Her sister survived and to this day suffers no ill effects from her premature arrival. But Anna was diagnosed with a heart defect and blindness.

Despite these daunting physical challenges, Ostapa had an active youth. She represented Canada in the 1980 Paralympics in Holland and won a bronze medal in the high jump. Then at age 22, Ostapa's life took a different course. She suddenly became exhausted and couldn't walk two blocks without having to lie down. Doctors told her she had developed multiple sclerosis.

As her condition worsened, she became more and more dependent on her guide dog, Diane. The two became inseparable. When Diane died in 1991, Channel took her place.

Before moving to her new home at Bridgepoint, Ostapa says she was told by a social worker at Scarborough General Hospital that she would be allowed to bring Channel with her. By the time she moved, however, Channel was gone and Ostapa began the quest for a new canine companion.

"I have never heard of anyone having to go through this kind of battle to have a Seeing Eye dog," says Randy Firth, manager of communications for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. "But as we all live longer lives and some of us have no choice but to move into care facilities, having a special-needs dog should be a guaranteed right."

Copyright © 2003, Toronto Star Newspapers Limited