At the age of 33, I lost my eyesight overnight. On that fateful day, I had driven home from my job as an A&E doctor at a busy London hospital, had dinner with my wife and went to bed. The next morning, my vision had all but gone.
I’d always known that my eyesight wasn’t perfect, but it hadn’t stopped me facing down cricket balls, skiing and even jumping out of planes as a teenager. Then, in my final year as a medical student at Cambridge University, I was diagnosed with an eye condition called keratoconus, which affects the shape of the cornea.
I began a long programme of treatment and surgery, which seemed to be working. It meant that I was able to gaze in awe at my beautiful bride, Seema, on our wedding day.
Dr Amit Patel (pictured) was diagnosed with an eye condition called keratoconus, which affects the shape of the cornea during his final year at Cambridge University. While his long programme of treatment and surgery appeared to be working, doctors discovered a series of burst blood vessels at the back of his eyes just over 18 months later
However, just over 18 months later, in 2013, doctors discovered that a series of blood vessels at the back of my eyes had burst – and soon after, the darkness closed in for ever.
The despair I felt was unfathomable. For the next six months, I shut down completely, mourning for the person I had once been, and for all the ambitions I would not now achieve. I even tried unsuccessfully to take my own life with an overdose of painkillers, so profound was my grief.
In November 2013, at the same time as my personal tragedy was unfolding, a beautiful white-blonde labrador puppy was born at a specialist breeding centre for guide dogs in Warwickshire. She had huge, soft-brown eyes, a quirky, larger-than-life personality and the kindest heart imaginable.
Her name was Kika, and she would give me back my life again.
It took me a long time and a lot of persuasion to come round to the idea of a guide dog. After months of turmoil since becoming blind, I’d gradually started getting my life back on track. I realised how lucky I had been to have found Seema. No one else made me feel so happy or so understood. I knew that connection was rare and precious indeed. But even so, the negative voice in my head sometimes had a field day: ‘It’s only going to get worse. And Seema will definitely have given up on you by then.’ But then I realised just how hard Seema would fight to keep us together.
I’d learned to read Braille and to use a white cane to get around, so why would I put my safety in the hands of an animal closely related to a wolf? With the cane, I was in control. A stick is never going to drag you across four lanes of traffic in pursuit of a squirrel, or be distracted by a doughnut. Was it really possible that I could ever trust an animal with my life?
In 2015, despite my doubts, I finally put my name down for a guide dog. I was told there would probably be a two-year wait.
The A&E doctor is pictured with his beautiful wife Seema. For the next six months after the discovery, he shut down completely, ‘mourning for the person I had once been, and for all the ambitions I would not now achieve’. He gradually started to get his life back, learned braille and signed up for a guide dog in 2015
But six weeks later I had a call from the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. They’d found me a match. Her name was Kika and she was an unusual dog, they told me – energetic, confident and highly intelligent, but with a determined streak that needed careful handling.
When it came to people, she had very strong likes and dislikes, and she needed to be on the go all the time to be happy. If I was interested, they would bring her to our flat for a meeting.
Intrigued, I said ‘yes’.
When I heard the pitter-patter of Kika’s paws as she walked down the corridor towards the front door of our flat, my heart started pounding. Was this going to be the start of something wonderful, or a huge disappointment? Inside the flat, Kika was let off her lead. ‘She’s going to have a bit of a nose around,’ said Roz Wakelin, her trainer.
Like an estate agent sizing up a property, Kika trotted from room to room, checking them all out until finally she flopped down in the living room next to us with a contended sigh.
Our home had Kika’s seal of approval. She strolled over to me for a tickle behind the ears. ‘She likes you,’ pronounced Roz. To be accepted by Kika – that was quite something.
Ten days later, I was on my way to an intensive residential training course, where Kika and I would find out if we could work together.
On the first night, I sat cross-legged on the floor of my hotel room and put my arms around my new friend, telling her how honoured I felt to have been matched with such a magnificent creature.
She seemed happy to be around me, letting me scratch behind her ears and rub her belly before she retreated to her dog bed.
Training progressed with lots of treats and rewards. Like all guide dogs, Kika knows that when she has her harness on, she is on duty and must be fully focused. When it’s taken off, she can relax and run around like any family pet. But as the course went on, my doubts came flooding back. How was it going to work? How could I put so much trust in a dog? Again and again I pulled Kika back on her harness as we walked, terrified to let her take charge.
I am a control freak and I simply couldn’t let myself trust her. The third morning of our stay was the game-changer. We had an early start, so I staggered out of bed and blearily felt my way along the bedroom wall to the en suite bathroom.
But when I got there, I found that Kika was blocking the way. She stood right in the doorway, refusing to let me pass.
‘Come on, Kika,’ I said. ‘I need to get in there.’ Still she wouldn’t budge. For several minutes I pleaded, cajoled and commanded, but she was immovable. I felt ridiculous as I phoned Becca, a guide dog mobility instructor, and told her about the problem. ‘Really?’ she said. ‘Lift her if you have to. You’re the boss.’
Within six weeks, Dr Patel (pictured) received a call from the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association who said they’d found a match. Retelling the moment he found his guide dog, he said: ‘Her name was Kika and she was an unusual dog, they told me – energetic, confident and highly intelligent, but with a determined streak that needed careful handling’
In the end, I barged Kika out of the way, only to find out the reason for her strange behaviour. Inside the bathroom, I could hear the sound of running water. The floor was covered in water at least an inch deep and it was slippery. I realised that my guide dog had been blocking my way because she knew there was a hazard on the other side of the door. ‘Kika, I’m so sorry,’ I said. She didn’t say ‘I told you so’, but she did accept a tummy-rub by way of an apology.
From that point, I let go of my fears. Time and again, Kika proved that my safety was her first concern. We wove our way around obstacle courses, tackled flights of stairs and navigated busy shopping centres. I was humbled by her ability. How could I ever have thought that a white cane was better than this amazing, intelligent and kindly creature who had let me into her life? By the end of the course, Kika and I were a team. When Becca told me I could take my guide dog home, I could not stop grinning.
It was September 2015. In the previous two years, I had been more miserable than I could ever have imagined possible. Now I felt like the luckiest man on Earth.
Since then, Kika has saved me from disaster on countless occasions, and when she inexplicably stops and refuses my command ‘Forward!’, I always know there is a reason: a car parked on the pavement, perhaps, or a hole in the road. All we can do is wait for the problem to clear, or hope that a kind stranger will show us an alternative route.
In extreme situations, I have even phoned the police. With the help of her dedicated trainers (and a large amount of mackerel pate placed strategically on street lamps and crossings to entice her along), Kika quickly learned all my regular routes – from our flat to the shops, to the park, to the station – avoiding hazards on the way. It’s not only inanimate obstacles she gives a wide berth to. She’ll cross the street to get us away from anyone she doesn’t like the look of.
The A&E doctor’s growing confidence, helped by the addition of Kika (pictured, file image of a guide dog) to the family, has meant his plans to start a family were taken off hold. In the autumn of 2016, their son Abhi was born, with Kika there on the hospital ward. The first opportunity she got, she came over to the baby and gave him a good sniff. From that first minute, she’s been his devoted protector and friend
People often ask me how Kika knows where we’re going when we set off each day. The answer is that she doesn’t. I’ll let her know our destination, but I’ll always direct her. It’s up to me to know where we are and where we’re going. If we get to a junction and I don’t tell her otherwise, she’ll continue on the route that is most familiar to her.
The more routes we do together, the closer our bond and the more confident she is in where to go.
Most of the time, our trains leave from the same platforms, but if there are any changes, I ask Kika to find me a member of staff. This is easy for her, as she recognises them by their high-vis jackets – though she has occasionally introduced me to groups of startled building contractors.
Sometimes we have to ask for help with navigation. You’d be surprised at the number of people who crouch down to give the directions to Kika.‘It’s the second on the left after the postbox…’
I know she is amazing, but she’s not THAT amazing!
In the aftermath of my sudden sight loss, Seema and I had put our plans to start a family on hold. But with my increasing independence, we finally decided we were ready for parenthood.
In the autumn of 2016, our son Abhi was born, with Kika there on the hospital ward. The first opportunity she got, she came over to the baby and gave him a good sniff. From that first minute, she’s been his devoted protector and friend. Then, last June, our daughter Anoushka was born – another member of the family for the tireless Kika to add to her brood.
I’d always wanted to be a hands-on father, and thanks to Kika, I can. With her help, I can even feel confident about taking a buggy out on my own. She knew the first time we tried it that she needed to slow her pace down so I could manoeuvre around safely, and Seema tells me that my wonderful dog takes it upon herself to keep looking back and checking the buggy is still there, and that all is well.
That confidence has spread to other areas of my life. I had the chance to take part in TV’s Top Gear, and with the help of instructions from a professional driver in the passenger seat, I set the fifth fastest time in the Star In A Reasonably Fast Car segment.
I want my family to be proud of me, despite everything that has happened. Like my hero, the late cosmologist Stephen Hawking, I could still live my dream life. It’s not all about ambitions, though. What I treasure most is the normality that Kika has given me.
Thanks to one extraordinary dog I can live a wonderfully ordinary life. I can be a dad, a husband, a colleague, a friend and a neighbour. With Kika’s help, I do it slightly differently. But we do it together. And that’s what it’s all about.
Watch Kika in action on Twitter at @Kika_GuideDog. For further information visit guidedogs.org.uk
© Amit Patel, 2020
- Kika & Me, by Dr Amit Patel, is published by Macmillan on February 20 at £16.99. To pre-order your copy for £13.59 (20 per cent discount), go to mailshop.co.uk or call 01603 648155 by March 31. Free delivery on all orders – no minimum spend.
What kind of moron hits a guide dog?
Who would maltreat a guide dog? If you think the answer is nobody, then you are, very sadly, mistaken. In 2016, having accepted that my medical career was at an end, I became a full-time campaigner and advocate for people living with disabilities.
It’s fantastic to be able to channel the energy I poured into being a doctor into such a worthwhile endeavour, and wherever I go, Kika comes too.
Mostly our journeys are trouble-free. But we have had more than our fair share of unpleasant encounters. Once, Kika stopped in the middle of a London Underground station and sat down by my feet, blocking my way and refusing to move. ‘Kika?’ I said. ‘Up.’ But nothing. As I pondered what to do next, a woman ran up to me and revealed that she’d just seen someone take a swipe at my dog with an umbrella.
‘Was it an accident?’ I asked.
‘No. They did it on purpose,’ the woman said. I could hear she was almost as shocked and angry as I was. I crouched down to reassure Kika. I couldn’t feel any injury but she was obviously shaken.
That was the day that my wife Seema and I decided to fit a camera to Kika’s harness. We could then film what happened on our regular commutes, and Seema could review the footage later. Only two days later, Seema spotted that a smartly dressed woman had lashed out at Kika with her handbag.
There have been many similar incidents. The camera has recorded people diving in front of us to get seats on trains and buses.
I decided to go public in 2018 with one of these videos. I hated the idea of guide dogs having a hard time just because they were helping humans have a better life, and I wanted to get the message out.
I chose a clip of an aggressive encounter with an angry commuter on an Underground escalator, who had asked me to move Kika because she was blocking his path and he was in a hurry. Even when I’d apologised and he was told by me and other passengers that she was a guide dog, he continued to berate me. ‘You’re holding everybody up here,’ he said.
I posted the video on the Twitter feed I run for Kika with a caption saying: ‘If you see a guide dog on an escalator, please wait patiently behind.’
Within hours, the clip had gone viral, followed by coverage in the mainstream media worldwide.
All that said, the majority of people are brilliant. Thank you to everybody who helps me when I’m travelling around.