Guest post by Philippa Windsor, a Team Leader at Ceremonies in East Sussex, tells us about her colleague Nicola, a seasoned ceremonies registrar who recently received her guide dog, Alison.

Nicola’s story

Having overcome two brain haemorrhages and treatment for cancer in the last 16 years, Nicola has fought to maintain her life, her way. After the first haemorrhage, she took herself off to complete a law degree and after the second haemorrhage, her doctor couldn’t quite believe that she had survived another brush with mortality! Today, she remains as determined as ever to move on and live life to the max with her 1-year-old guide dog, Alison, who is there to ensure that Nicola feels confident, safe, and in control wherever she goes.

Although sight loss is considered rare following a brain injury, such as a haemorrhage, in Nicola’s case it has led to a permanent loss of whole areas of sight, meaning she is now registered as sight impaired. Until this year, she had been using a cane to assist her mobility, but since Alison arrived everything has changed!

After sitting on the waiting list for more than a yearNicola with her guide dog, Alison

Nicola received the precious call in May 2023 that confirmed she had been selected to train with a guide dog and, if they were right for each other, she would then receive the dog as her own. Nicola says, “When I received the call from James at Guide Dogs to say that I had been matched with a dog I just burst into tears. I knew that having Alison would complete the new version of me following my sight loss and I was just incredibly grateful to be given the opportunity to be as safe as possible while maintaining my independence. I was shaking so much it took a while for me to be able to call my daughters and share the good news with them”.

Alison has already saved my life at least once!

In the last couple of months, Nicola qualified as a Guide Dog Partnership with Alison and the difference she has made to her life has been incredible. “The trust I have in her to keep me safe means that I can now do simple things that sighted people take for granted. Alison has already saved my life at least once! A basic example is that now I can look at shop signs as I walk along instead of having to stop because I was always conscious of maintaining a safe space around me in the street. I can take in more real life as I walk knowing that Alison is working at keeping me safe as we go. I have noticed that I now walk with my head held high looking forward and I just couldn’t do that before Alison arrived.”

When Alison, the guide dog, joined the ceremonies team

July saw the introduction of Alison to the workplace which coincided nicely with Nicola’s new day-job at Hastings Register Office. Since 2015, Nicola has been a ceremonies registrar at the weekend and during this time, she has conducted and registered hundreds of civil partnerships and marriages across the eastern region of East Sussex, including her own daughter’s wedding! Now in 2023, Nicola is working as a registration service receptionist during the week with Alison at her side for both elements of her work which still includes attending ceremony venues across the county.

Nicola has taken Alison into work since day oneNicola and Alison the guide dog

The work Nicola does varies in location and the duties change too, depending on what ‘hat’ she’s wearing. Alison has been amazing in adapting to each of the surroundings and Nicola knows now that wherever she needs to be, Alison will get her there in as safe a way as possible.

Alison’s arrival at work was planned to some extent in that she has a dedicated space in the office where she can be safe and comfortable when she’s not working.

Nicola recounts “She was a little unsettled the first couple of days as she is still such a young dog, but we are now four or five weeks in, and she is very settled and most of the time you would never know that there was a dog in the office. My employer and all my colleagues have been so supportive too and Alison has gained lots of Aunts who say hello on a regular basis. I would encourage anyone with sight loss to keep working if that is what you want to do. With a little planning and understanding anything is possible. I really am so pleased that I decided to continue to work after I lost my sight. It’s been challenging but so worth it!”.

Nicola has big (guide dog related) aspirations for the future

Nicola has recently volunteered to become a speaker for Guide Dogs. She would like more people to realise that guide dogs not only help completely blind people but those with parts of their sight missing like her. “Some members of the public have assumed that I’m Alison’s trainer because I do have some sight. But when I explain my own sight loss, they completely understand why she is so vital for me. I suppose if I can do any tiny bit of good it would be to educate people so that they realise that every single sight loss journey is different. What helps one person won’t necessarily help the next. Its all about a balance of people’s needs and finding that ‘fit’”.

“Alison has also helped me to accept the new me…”

Nicola has always been ferociously independent despite a significant number of life changing events in the last 16 years. Her successful rehabilitation can be put down to a number of factors, not least her dogged desire to get on with life. Nicola says “Alison has also helped me to accept the new me and to be proud of myself for working so hard to remain independent. Also, having her as a pet dog when we are not working together has been wonderful. She is such a funny character who loves just being a dog and she makes people smile when they see her. I really am so happy she came into my life.”