When the students on the first floor of Cromwell Hall moved into their dorms in August, they were greeted by at least one unexpected floor mate: Denim, a two-year-old black Labrador retriever.
Denim is the guide dog and roommate of Mary Worthington ’12, a first-year elementary education major from Annandale, NJ, who has been legally blind her entire life. Despite this handicap, Mary’s courageous spirit has enabled her to live life on her own terms.
Mary’s blindness stems from a premature birth. Born when her mother, Adele, was just 24 weeks into her pregnancy, Mary weighed only 24 ounces at birth. “I was born in July when I was actually supposed to be born in November,” Mary explained.
During her first postnatal week, Mary dropped to 15 ounces following a heart surgery, fever, infections, and more. “I made it through, luckily, and here I am,” she said.
All of her ailments were eventually resolved, except for her vision problems. The doctors diagnosed Mary with Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP). The eye disorder primarily affects premature infants born under 2.75 pounds and can lead to lifelong visual impairment and blindness, according to the National Eye Institute.
Although a doctor declared Mary legally blind, it was soon discovered that one of her eyes “had a pinpoint worth of central vision,” said Adele. “Because of the brain’s ability to adapt, Mary was able to utilize [that pinpoint of sight] far better than an adult with the same anatomy.”
ROP is a progressive disease, but Mary was able to adapt to her blindness along the way with the use of technology, she said. However, at the age of 13, her vision took a turn for the worse and has been on a “downward slope” ever since, she said.
Not one to bemoan her situation, Mary quickly pointed out, “You know, that’s why I have Denim!”
Mary received Denim this past summer through the guide dog for the blind program, Leader Dog. The program is based in Rochester, MI, where Mary and Denim trained together for three and a half weeks before heading to TCNJ.
“At the beginning, I had some misgivings about (Denim), but then I saw him, and I just let all the misgivings drop,” Mary said. “It was just really nice to have someone to play with and always be there for you.”
With or without Denim, Mary does not allow her blindness prevent her from doing what she loves. A runner since she was in third grade, Mary ran competitively for two years on the cross-country team at her high school, North Hunterdon High School. Her dad, also a cross-country runner, ran in front of her as a guide.
In 2005, Mary was awarded the Lowell Snare Courageous Award, which is given by the Hunterdon/Warren Athletic Association to a courageous athlete.
Her refusal to let her disability define or limit her will undoubtedly serve her well as a special education teacher, the career path she has chosen to pursue after graduating.
“I would like to become a special education teacher because I would like to expand the horizons of special needs children,” Mary said. “I do not want them to think they are less of a person because of their disability.”