Legally blind woman navigates Denver art world with her guide dog by her side

"Many of us rely on our dogs for emotional support but this reliance is different, it’s a mutual respect of survival, both need each other to survive."
April 27, 2022
In celebration of International Guide Dog day, legally blind patient shares benefits of having a guide dog - UCHealth
Myrna Hayutin is legally blind, but thanks to her guide dog, Gouda, lives a full life and co-owns an art gallery called Gallery M. Photo courtesy of Myrna Hayutin.

Writer, artist, wife, entrepreneur, mom and successful business owner are just a few words that describe Myrna Hayutin.

When you first meet Hayutin, you wouldn’t know that she’s legally blind, even though her guide dog, Gouda, gives you a clue. She says her doctors always tell her, “You’re blind, but you don’t look it or act like it.” This is something Hayutin takes pride in because she hasn’t let her visual impairment get in the way of a fulfilling life, or a successful career.

Hayutin grew up in St. Louis and in high school, she was the editor of her school’s yearbook. She went on to attend Simmons College in Boston, majoring in publication. When she married her husband, she moved to Denver and started working as a copywriter. After her first child, she opened her own advertising agency and was writing advertising copy for major department stores in Denver. Then after her second child, she decided to follow her passion for fine art and became the director of several major art galleries in Denver. By 1996, she opened her own fine art gallery in Cherry Creek, Gallery M, with her oldest son as her co-founder. The gallery is still thriving today.

Vision problems started at an early age

Myrna Hayutin at her art gallery with her guide dog, Gouda, sitting in the background - UCHealth
Myrna Hayutin at her art gallery with her guide dog, Gouda, sitting in the background. Photo courtesy of Myrna Hayutin.

When Hayutin was 8 years old, she started getting headaches. At the time, doctors assumed she just had bad eyesight and prescribed eyeglasses. But her vision got progressively worse, and by the time she started college, she would walk into objects and through hedges because she couldn’t see, especially at night. She was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa in 1987.

“Retinitis pigmentosa is a retinal degeneration that is inherited. Depending on the mutation someone has, there is a dysfunction of the photoreceptors, basically the rods and cones of the retina. Usually, the rods degenerate first, and they are responsible for night vision and peripheral vision, which is what Myrna experienced,” said Dr. Naresh Mandava, one of Hayutin’s ophthalmologists at the UCHealth Sue Anschutz-Rodgers Eye Center.

Hayutin describes her current vision as looking through two tiny straws, she has no peripheral vision and cannot see anything at night or in low light. She’s also had multiple corneal transplants in both eyes due to another eye disease she has called keratoconus.

“Keratoconus is a disease where the cornea starts bending and warping, and eventually it becomes white and cloudy. Hayutin received cadaver corneas from a donor, and she now has clear and working corneas. However, due to her retinitis pigmentosa, she’s still considered legally blind,” said Mandava, who is also chair of the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine on the Anschutz Medical Campus.

It is possible that Hayutin may lose all the remaining vision she has due to continued degeneration of her retinas. However, there are many technologies being developed such as gene therapies, where doctors identify the genetic issues and restore the missing genetic information to the cells of the retina. This is done through infecting the cells with a virus that has the missing genetic material.

Other strategies involve getting the inner retina to relay information to the optic nerve and the brain to restore the visual pathway, all while bypassing the outer retina, which is what usually becomes damaged by the retinitis pigmentosa. These technologies are still in the early stages but offer some hope and promise for patients like Hayutin.

She sees five eye specialists at UCHealth: Mandava, Dr. Richard Davidson, Dr. Leo Seibold, Dr. Marc Mathias and Dr. Eric Hink. Because of her complex conditions, she sees her providers often and is grateful to have doctors she can trust who she also likes as people.

“They are all amazing doctors and people; they are all incredibly kind and have helped me a ton.”

Guide dog: a life-changing partner

Myrna Hayutin sits outside with her guide dog, Gouda - UCHealth
Myrna Hayutin sits outside with her guide dog, Gouda. Photo courtesy of Myrna Hayutin.

Hayutin started using a cane to get around the same year she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. But she felt that people stigmatized her and had preconceived notions about people who use canes or have impaired vision. People would often not take her seriously and avoid her or move away from her when she walked into a room or down the street, which became upsetting and frustrating for Hayutin.

“It just wasn’t for me. It  was impacting my mental health and well-being.”

So, one day she woke up and said, “I’m getting a guide dog.”

Enter, Gouda. Like the cheese.

Hayutin received Gouda almost 9 years ago from Guide Dogs for the Blind, or GDB, after a rigorous application and interview process. Once she was approved for a dog, she flew to Oregon to do a two-week training program at the GDB campus. During this two-week session, licensed guide dog instructors helped Hayutin and Gouda get to know each other and practice routes, commands and cues. Within the first month of bringing Gouda home to Colorado, Hayutin had her fourth corneal transplant, so Gouda was there by her side 24/7, including in the operating room.

“Gouda has changed everything for me. I have a friend who’s with me 24/7. This journey has been life-changing, she’s my partner and she’s just amazing.”

Guide dogs save lives

A guide dog is more than just an adorable sidekick. They can be the difference between life and death. When Gouda is guiding her handler, she is laser-focused. She knows when her harness is on, she is working. This means she doesn’t interact with other people or dogs the way a pet would. She doesn’t wag her tail or bark, she barely acknowledges other people around her, and this is on purpose. She stays focused on guiding Hayutin safely through her surroundings, whether that is crossing a street, going up the stairs, navigating a new environment or letting her know if something is not right.

“The relationship between the guide dog and their handler is unique,” Mandava said. “Many of us rely on our dogs for emotional support but this reliance is different, it’s a mutual respect of survival, both need each other to survive.”

It’s important to know that if you see a guide dog, you should not pet the dog without asking, and be prepared for the handler to say “no.” When the guide dog is on the job, it’s important not to interrupt or distract them. Another thing to remember is to always speak to the dog’s handler directly, not just the dog. And if you have your own dog with you, keep your dog leashed and as far away from the guide dog as possible.

Hayutin’s story is a great example of how someone can overcome a seemingly impossible obstacle and go on to live an extraordinary life.

Vision is something many of us take for granted daily and we often don’t realize the incredible and important job guide dogs do. That’s why it’s important to show guide dogs and their handlers respect and understand that these dogs are much more than just pets, they allow visually impaired and blind people to experience a freedom they may not have ever imagined.

About the author

Megan Jansson is a Social Media Communication Strategist at UCHealth with a passion for all things health. She worked as a certified personal trainer for many years, earned her bachelor’s degree in strategic advertising at the University of Colorado Boulder and earned her master’s degree in public health at Colorado State University. Always having a big passion for writing, she’s written numerous articles and stories for Colorado State University and the Colorado School of Public Health.