Real teamwork can do amazing things. When two people work together with the same mindset and the same goals, there isn’t much that they can’t do. In the case of a guide dog and their favorite person, the bond they share together can make a person with sight challenges have a much easier life. In the case of Kacy Lyman, of St. Louis Park, and his guide dog, Jamal, the two of them are a true team. And because Lyman is a licensed social worker, he is truly making others’ lives easier as well.

Kacy Lyman and his trusty guide dog, Jamal, make a great team.
Photo by Caryl Hunter

At the young age of 6, Lyman was diagnosed with a rare disease known as Stevens-Johnson Syndrome. At the time, the doctor who diagnosed the disease did not know for sure what they were dealing with, but he decided that the best course of action was to treat it. Lyman felt fortunate to be in Rochester at Mayo Clinic with excellent, proactive physicians.

“With Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, it’s usually caused by medication. But, I wasn’t on any medication,” said Lyman. “They figured I was either stung by a wasp or there were pollutants in a lake I had been in.”  Lyman compared the disease to almost being like a plague.

Lyman was in a coma for a couple of weeks, followed by multiple surgeries, physical therapy, and the beginning of a whole new life. Said Lyman, “My muscles deteriorated, my heart shut down. I had to re-learn how to do everything.”

Fortunately for Lyman, his parents adjusted and supported their son. “My parents shifted gears very smoothly,” said Lyman. “My dad said that our lives will never be like they were. He said my situation was like being a tweener – not completely blind, but not completely in sight.”

Thirty years later, Lyman is in great physical shape, and the problems only remain in his eyes. “My left eye is shot, and there are calluses on my right eye. I see what most people see when they are coming out of the shower. All that steam. On a good day, I see shadows.”

He is thankful for the doctor at Mayo, who he still sees twice a week, for the quick response with treatments, and for being at Mayo Clinic in the first place. “Without those treatments I wouldn’t have gotten through college,” said Lyman. “I knew I was in this place where I had a barrier that no one else had, but was able to see things differently because of that.”

As Lyman’s vision decreased, he started using a cane, but he would leave it behind all the time, only adding to his struggles. As he got older and settled down a bit, he moved into a building where he found out about guide dogs. His family ended up contacting Guide Dogs for the Blind, which has locations in Oregon and California. It was then, seven and a half years ago, that Lyman was introduced to Jamal, a labrador retriever with a sweet face and a big heart. Through a special program, Lyman was able to do the required 14 day training in Minnesota with Jamal.

Lyman is very serious about Jamal’s care. He’s careful about what he feeds him, so Jamal always has a healthy diet. “A guide dog is in a different environment than a regular dog. They have to have optimal health. They don’t have immunities to food like other dogs do. You have to be strict with what he can eat,” said Lyman. Fortunately for Jamal, his favorite treat is carrots.

Lyman is quick to say that, unlike other stories of guide dogs where there’s an immediate bond, that was not the case with Jamal. “There was no connection right away. I wanted the mindset that this is a responsibility, not a pet.” It wasn’t until Lyman came down with pneumonia that the bond deepened. Without any direction, Jamal quietly put his head on Lyman’s chest. “It was then that we bonded,” said Lyman. “After that, he watched out for me, and I watched out for him.”

Lyman’s chance to watch out for Jamal came into play when Jamal developed some sight problems himself. He developed pannus, which is an immune-mediated condition that affects the cornea of the eye in dogs and makes their eyes very dry. Before it was diagnosed, Jamal’s eyes had become 75 percent worse. The veterinarian compared it to a human condition he could not remember other than it had two names. Said Lyman, “I said, do you mean Stevens-Johnson Syndrome?” The irony that Jamal had a condition like his was quite surprising, but fortunately the eye drops that help humans for Stevens-Johnson also help dogs. The drops helped Jamal to regain most of his vision. To witness the calmness when Lyman sits on the floor and puts the drops into Jamal’s eyes is a truly trusting partnership.

For most people, Jamal’s presence is that of a sweet, working dog. For the people that are afraid of him, Lyman does have some advice. “Jamal does not have an aggressive bone in his body, but there are people who are afraid of him. With our large Somalian and Muslim population in Minnesota, there is a notable fear. They don’t have the same experience with dogs and can only go by their experience or what they have read.” As explained by a Somali woman who is now a Minnesota resident, the country they came from has wild dogs, and they are understandably afraid of them. It’s difficult to switch gears to America when their experience is so different. And a working animal is really new to them. Even though Lyman explains Jamal is a guide dog, it can be difficult. “The dog is not a robot,” said Lyman. “The irony is that the person with the guide dog clearly cannot drive.” Drivers can be paranoid and anxious or not want to drive him at all. Said Lyman, “You’re at the mercy of the driver, so I do my best to let them know ahead of time. That’s also where education is important.”

Jamal had an eye condition similar to his owner, Kacy, so the two share the same eye drops as treatment for the condition. Contributed photo

The same is true when Lyman and Jamal are out walking and parents are outside with their children. “People will freak out,” said Lyman, “Jamal is just walking with me and not paying any attention to them. He would just walk on by, but because they make a scene, then he sees them. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

The other thing that gets to Lyman is people who want to share their stories about their dog dying if they see him with Jamal. ”It’s natural to want to talk to me about your dog if your dog recently died, but I actually get bombarded daily with dog stories,” said Lyman. “If you have the ability to not talk about that, it would be great.”

“We are not a prototype of a good example either,” says Lyman. Jamal is afraid of heights and will run from high places, which Lyman learned rather surprisingly while they were in a mall one day. It is through trial and error that they have learned to adapt and work together.

The two have not only learned to adapt and live a good life together, they also work as a team to help other people. At the age of 36, Lyman is a social worker who helps people on a daily basis in the community. Lyman’s decision to go into social services was one of compassion and understanding. “Being on the side of receiving services, I was drawn toward working in social services,” said Lyman. “I appreciate the value of providing those services.”

Lyman is a kind soul with a great sense of humor and a strong work ethic. The dedication that he and Jamal have for each other is apparent to anyone who works with them. They may not be a prototype, but they are a solid team that has a positive effect on everyone around them.

There is something really admirable about a person who has their own struggles who is out there helping others. Lyman has an understanding that makes him more able to relate and be empathic. As remarkable as they seem to the outsider, Lyman is just living his life with a little help from a great guide dog, and enjoying what he does for a living. Even for the people who might have some fear, a little education and time spent around Lyman and Jamal will eventually help them see both the commitment in the teamwork and the genuine bond between them. Lyman is a warm and friendly guy – and Jamal is friendly and warm himself. But, Lyman takes what he does for a living very seriously and is very committed to helping people in the community. As for Jamal, said Lyman, “Jamal is just Jamal,” with a tail that starts wagging when you approach him…but of course, it doesn’t hurt to have some carrots.