When Dr Amit Patel lost his sight, he thought his world was crumbling around him. With the love of his family and social media celebrity dog, Kika, he has learned to see the world around him in a whole new way. Speaking at the Small Awards last week, he shared his story of resilience to a room full of business owners.
“It’s quite funny. Kika has over 20,000 followers on social media and she’s a bit of a diva,” he said, standing on stage next to his Labrador retriever companion. Kika is somewhat a national celebrity, after Patel fitted her with a GoPro to record evidence of the discrimination he faced in London but could not see.
#PavementParking is making my work more difficult than it needs to be! It’s only Monday & I’ve been forced to take @BlindDad_Uk on to the the road to navigate on coming traffic on three different occasions. Situations like these soon wipe the smile off your face 😧🐶🧔🏽🚗🚌🚚 pic.twitter.com/CrxpoFThXb
— Kika 🇬🇧 (@Kika_GuideDog) April 1, 2019
A sudden shock
Dr Patel lost his sight 7 years ago when he lived in Guildford. “I drove home one day, had dinner with my wife, woke up Thursday and completely lost my sight. It was due to a hemorrhage in the back of my eyes. Being a doctor, I could not except that. We tried everything and anything. We traveled the world looking for answers.”
“There was no hope for us so I had to reinvent myself. It was a tricky time of my life because it was a year after marriage. I was going from a trauma doctor to a GP just so I can spend more time with my wife. All of that changed overnight.”
Strong family support
The one thing that Patel credits to helping him get through the shock was his family. Patel and his brother grew up behind the counter of a convenience store in Guildford, where he did all of his studying. His strong family unit helped him charge ahead in his career, and when he lost his sight, they were there for him in immeasurable ways, he said.
“I was at home and my dad came up to me one day. That one day was too much and I started crying and I said ‘dad, why me? What did I do wrong in my life that I had to go through all this?’ And my dad said, ‘because you can get through this.’”
That was a major turning point in Patel’s life. “It was also the upbringing and the way me and my brother were brought up; to always think about others first and respect others first.”
“I learned to start using a white cane. Imagine doing a commute in London but with your eyes closed. I lost all of my sight. All I have is one tiny pixel at the top right hand corner to tell me where to go. But what no one told me about was the mental and physical draining that your body goes through.”
“But I have an amazing wife,” Patel added. “You could imagine a year into marriage, she was the one who stood by me. She may not have known what to say and may have not wanted to say the wrong thing. But she was there.”
The hardest thing for Patel was being a doctor, he was used to telling others about his condition in a clinical way. But actually having to go through this yourself is pretty traumatic, he said.
“So when I lost my sight I knew I had people I could turn to, and actually ask for help. For a guy who tends to help everyone else, it was the most difficult part turning to someone for say, I need help.”
Living in London is a challenge for anyone
Patel and his wife moved to Canary Wharf to be closer to her workplace. The daily commute from Guildford, knowing she’d have to leave him alone at the time, was a major source of anxiety for her. Once they were in London, Patel realised he couldn’t be housebound all the time.
“I noticed when I lost my sight is how lonely it can be and you take for granted the fact that you could see. You could be on the train, you could have a contact with people you could see all the stuff but being blind having a white cane I don’t put any headphones on because I’m up listening out for announcements and danger,” he explained.
“A 5-minute journey can take half an hour in my head because your all alone.”
“I was on Waterloo station waiting for the train in the middle of winter,” he said. “It was raining and the train was arriving. I was making my way through and accidentally tapped someone’s shoe. That person turned around grabbed my cane and threw it away from me. Not one person on that train helped me. I literally fell on the floor and started crying. It took 20 minutes for someone to come over and say ‘are you okay?’. I didn’t leave my house for 6 months after that.”
Learning to trust Kika
After that point, Patel decided to get more independent by working with guide dogs. Guide dogs will watch how fast you move, how confident you are and adapt accordingly. It takes time to get matched. Six weeks later, Patel was matched with Kika and the rest is history.
“One thing I was told on the phone was Kika will either like you or she won’t. Yes or no, black and white. And I needed a dog that takes me around the world with numerous routes.”
When Kika was training, she moved house to house and she never got along with people, he said. “It was on our third day. I woke up in the morning and saw her sitting right in front of the bathroom door. She wasn’t listening so I pushed her out of the way. I got my hands on her collar trying to move her. When I opened the bathroom door, it turns out that the pipe was leaking overnight and there was about 3 inches of water on the floor. So she was kind of looking out for me. It was that day I completely let go and trusted her and she trusted me. Eventually we did get matched and she did come home with us.”
Learning to trust Kika wasn’t easy for Patel. One day on a walk around the dockyards, Kika suddenly stopped and refused to listen to any of his commands. Frustrated and confused, Patel called the police asking for help. Once they got there about 20 minutes later, he realised the reason she stopped was because it was a windy day and cones had fallen all around them. “That’s when I really realised she is actually a guide dog and she does know what she’s doing.”
Now all he hears when walking around London is ‘hi Kika, hey Kika’.
“It’s crazy. You walk out of your house and you trust your dog to take you around. It could be work around London, it could be on a Eurostar to Paris, or jumping on a plane to New York. She’s a proper Londoner! She barges in when no one stands in a line or moves out my way on the escalator,” Patel said.
“She gives me confidence. Whatever traumatic incident you go through your life, you don’t have to stop being who you are.”
“Fatherhood made me stronger”
“In my head, my wife has been looking out for me I am starting to get back on my feet and now we’re having a baby,” he said, recalling his immediate reaction to the happy news.
“I heard stories about how some guide dogs don’t get along with babies. So we took Kika to the nursery and every scan. The first time she heard the baby kick, she started licking my wife’s belly. It could’ve been the gel but I take it as a sentimental thing.”
Kika was also in the delivery room when the baby was born, even when the nurse tried to take her out.
“That same day, I went to the hospital cafeteria. A man there was surprised and said ‘I didn’t realise blind people could have kids.’ So being a doctor, I told him it is possible. I think I even asked him if he has a paper and a pen so I can draw him a diagram. I just cannot believe someone thinks that way. But you know what? I love being a dad.”
Dealing with ignorance on a daily basis makes you determined
Juggling fatherhood and motivational speaking, Patel was finding his stride when he faced one of the worst experiences in his life.
“I was actually sitting on the train and a lady came up to me and said ‘in my opinion disabled people shouldn’t have kids.’ The whole train just went quiet.
He told Kika to find him another seat but she was too comfortable to move. The woman in question spent a good half hour ranting at Patel and trying to shame him on his train journey while carried his infant son.
“I can’t give my children a good upbringing, I’m going to lose out so much, I can’t take my kids to the museum, my son is not going to appreciate certain things. She just went on and on! She got off the train and four people came up to me and asked if I was okay. But where were you 20 minutes ago?”
“Sometimes I think people only see my disability. I worked as a trauma doctor in the NHS, I worked for the Red Cross, but they see my disability. They don’t see what someone is capable of doing. I guess in a sight loss journey, we’ve come across a lot of barriers.”
This is where Patel’s wife told him to take a break, they’d live off their savings for a few months. “Go and do your campaign, make the world a better place. When we run out of funds, we can start working again. From there on, we worked with TfL, British Airways and other organisations to show people that disability isn’t the end of someone’s life.”
He spent months finding people to spread awareness that having something so big in your life doesn’t have to stop you from going out or being yourself. “I didn’t want to leave my house. I think I was ashamed of losing my sight. I was the guy that people turned to. It was very hard for me to turn around and ask for help from others.”
“When I did lose my sight, I was getting calls from colleagues asking when I’d be giving up my job. People were calling my wife to say ‘now you’re going to be looking after your husband your whole life, your life is over’. And this is what people see disability as. You’re a burden.”
When you’re down and you don’t see the bright light at the end of the tunnel, all you see is negativity, he said. “But you know what? Life is amazing and the only thing that gets me down is I don’t know what my son looks like. Would you believe minutes after my son was born, my wife gave me a description of how he looks like. And now all he does is say ‘daddy’ and takes my hand and puts it on his face.” The proud father is now expecting baby number 2.
“We are not prepared. But we’re okay because of the community we have. I want my son to grow up in the same sense of community. I want someone to come up to him and say ‘would you like help?’.”
Patel thrives off the adrenaline rush of being a trauma doctor, and people constantly ask him where he gets his thrills from now. “Now it’s literally being able to step out of the house. It’s absolutely terrifying. But Kika here is absolutely amazing.”
“I am the luckiest guy in the world. I would not be up here talking to you if it wasn’t for the people around me. It has given me the confidence and independence back to me. And Kika is huge part of my life. But she is a character and I don’t think I’ve ever been lonely on a train. She will look at everyone and might even give you the evils until you say hello!”
The Small Awards is dedicated to celebrating the big achievements of the smallest and the greatest of businesses from across the UK. The event was held on 9 May 2019.
Additional reporting by Manpreet Minhas.