Mr. Tibbs, a Yellow Labrador Retriever guide dog, leads Andi Mills of Honea Path to her classes at Lander University where she is a full time student. With the dog's help, Mills, who is blind, can achieve her goal of being as independent as possible.
Lander University student Andi Mills is often found sitting in front of her personal computer in the ground floor atrium of Lander's Carnell Learning Center, her companion, Mr. Tibbs, dozing nearby. Or she can be spotted walking to classes with Mr. Tibbs trotting along at her side. Mills is legally blind. Mr. Tibbs is a yellow Labrador Retriever, a guide dog who, as she puts it, " gets me were I have to be."
Mills is 59 years old. She began losing her eyesight in 2008, the result of a rare congenital blood disease that causes clotting and seizures in her eyes, depriving the optic nerves of oxygen. It began as blurred vision in her right eye and, within three weeks, she lost all right side vision. As the disease progressed, the left eye was affected and, now, she is able to see only shapes and movements out of that eye.
Failing eyesight forced Mills to quit her job as a long-haul truck driver after 28 years behind the wheel.
The year before the ailment struck, Mills and a friend from Abbeville completed a nearly 1,600-mile trip on horseback from Ventura, Calif., to Magnolia, Ark. They called themselves "The Carolina Trekkers" and their goal was to promote stroke awareness and early detection. Her sister, Mary Booker, and the sister of Edie New, the other rider on the cross-country trip, were stroke victims. Mills wanted to make the second half of the trip from Arkansas to Edisto Island, S.C., the following year, but fate had other plans.
"Blindness is an inconvenience," she said, adding, "I'm blessed. I could have been given a death sentence." Mills does not fret about what she lost but concentrates on what she can do and being as independent as possible.
In 2009, she entered a program offered by the Commission for the Blind in Columbia, which taught her to read Braille, the correct way to use a travel cane and to do things around the house. Later, she underwent vocational training on computers and other specialized equipment to help her read.
She wears eyeglasses with a high magnification level that enable her to read but she must hold printed pages only inches away from her left eye. Her personal computer displays text in large print and has an audio capability that enables it to speak. It is able to read back material she has typed and play e-mail messages.
In October of 2009, after completing the Commission for the Blind program and vocational training, she was invited to Guide Dogs of America in Sylmar, Calif., and there she met Mr. Tibbs, who was a year old at the time. "He would give me the freedom I needed," she said. For a month, human and canine learned to work as a team. The organization provided the dog at no cost and even paid Mills' expenses for round-trip travel and lodging. At the end of their training she and Mr. Tibbs returned to Honea Path, where she shares a duplex with her sister. Mills also has two German Shepherds and a cat.
In January, she enrolled as a freshman at Lander where she is majoring in English, with a professional writing emphasis, and a minor in Spanish. She enjoys going to classes. "When I began losing my sight, I felt that all the doors in the world were closing. I was losing my identity. It was pretty scary." Mills felt isolated and it was hard for her to accept losing her independence and ability to get around.
"Coming to Lander gives me a reason to get out of bed each day. The interaction with faculty and fellow students is stimulating, and our intellectual conversations make me feel I have a life again."
On the days she has classes, friend Tina Barker, who works in Greenwood, drives Mills to Lander and back home.
Mr. Tibbs has adapted to the campus routine without much difficulty. He leads her from one class to another then lies quietly at her feet when he is not working. She carries a mat for him to curl up on, which offers protection from cold when he is lying on concrete or tile floors.
He has become somewhat of a celebrity among members of the Lander community who pay him a lot of attention. Mills jokes that people don't know who she is but they call him by name. Because guide dogs are trained to be protective of their owners and to resist distractions, passersby are discouraged from talking to or petting them when they are working. But Mills has made exceptions. When she is occupied with computer work or studying and Mr. Tibbs is resting, she allows people to talk to or pet him, and he enjoys and responds enthusiastically to the attention. "He's here 10 hours a day with me and I want it to be a pleasant experience for him, too," she said.
Mills moved to South Carolina from Colorado eight years ago. Her son, J.C. Clade, teaches industrial electricity and electronics at York Technical College in Rock Hill. She has five grandchildren and one great grandchild.
She is determined to be as active as possible despite losing her eyesight. She finds time to go to a firing range for competitive shooting, enjoys walking and hiking and has begun riding a horse again with Mr. Tibbs, attached to a 30-foot tether, leading the way.
Mills met recently with Lander nursing students and told them what they might expect when caring for patients who are blind or losing their eyesight. She emphasized that there are varying degrees of blindness and that some people can do more than others. She also said there is a difference between those who are born blind and those who lose their sight. "That takes you out of your world and drops you in another world." She said it causes stressful psychological difficulties, but nurses can help by providing encouragement.
Her goal is to be a writer and copy editor and she has begun writing a book about her California to Arkansas horseback odyssey. She wants people to understand that blindness does not define who she is. She said there are a lot of resources available that allow her to be independent and active and she takes full advantage of them.
Mills quotes Mark Twain who said, "You may not always have control of your circumstances in life, but you do have control over how you choose to deal with them." She added, "I believe that."