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SALTWATER PORTRAIT

Tommy Gibson: Lewes man, dog create lasting bond

'A perfect match'
January 2, 2018

Tommy Gibson moved to Delaware to die. Twenty-two years later, he still lives in the Sandy Brae house he and his partner Randy Marshall call home.

“We bought this house for me to die. But I never died,” says Gibson, with a wry sense of humor he's maintained throughout all the hardship life's dealt him.

When Gibson was ravaged by autoimmune deficiency syndrome in 1996, a doctor gave him three months to live.

But Gibson turned out to be exactly the kind of patient another doctor needed as he sought a cure for the AIDS epidemic. “They were looking for dead people who hadn't died yet,” Gibson said.

“We were lucky to get a doctor who was on the cutting edge of AIDS therapy,” Marshall added.

The doctor's medicine cocktail worked. Gibson's immune system responded, and he regained his strength in six weeks.

“To everyone it was a miracle. Tommy took a chance because he really had nothing to lose. That was incredible thing to watch,” said Marshall. The couple has been together for 36 years, and they consider themselves married since 1983, when they had a ceremony with friends and family celebrating their union.

His health improving, Gibson moved into 1996 in good spirits only to experience another pivotal year. An eye disease was destroying his retinas, causing them to atrophy and harden. He became sick because his body was rejecting his eyes.

His eyes were removed; Gibson was blind.

Sky-blue prosthetic eyes now fill the space left when doctors removed his real eyes. He adjusted to life without sight, learned to walk with a cane and stayed active.

But his life was about to change again. In 2003, Gibson got his first seeing-eye dog.

Like family

Dakota came into Gibson's life in the spring of 2003. For eight years, the German shepherd gave him confidence as Gibson moved around the Lewes and Rehoboth Beach communities. He no longer needed his cane to maneuver around obstacles.

“The dog gets you around all that stuff,” he said. “You don't even know it's there.”

When Dakota retired in 2010, Gibson and Marshall kept him as a family pet. Gibson's second guide dog was a yellow Labrador retriever named Opus. The two went everywhere.

They even earned a bit of fame.

While visiting New York City in 2013, the two were kicked out of one pizza joint, and an employee tried to kick them out of the second restaurant. “He said 'Hey you with the dog, you need to get out of here,” Gibson said. “I told him to call the cops then. He didn't, so I finished my pizza and left.”

But he didn't let either restaurant off easy.

Gibson filed a complaint with the New York City Human Rights Commission against the two eateries. “I did it for everyone who has a service animal,” he said.

In January 2017, a judge ruled that Gibson should be awarded $10,000 for his pain and suffering. A $10,000 fine was also placed on NYC Fried Chicken, and the judge ordered sensitivity training for its employees. Gibson said hasn't received any money yet, and officials tell him the case is in enforcement.

“They're not giving me any answers, and I'm getting frustrated,” he said. “It could take 6 to 8 years before I get any money. The wheels of justice move slowly.”

Famous Famiglia, the second eatery that kicked out Gibson and Opus, wants to settle out of court. Gibson said he wants the eatery to display a Service Friendly sign on the door and require employees to take antidiscrimination and service dog education. The cash awards will be determined, he said.

While Gibson said the judge's decision in the first case was welcomed, the timing of it turned bittersweet.

Opus, who guided him through the busy streets of Manhattan and back to the quieter streets at home, was struck with lung cancer.

“He refused to eat food, and I knew this isn't my dog,” Gibson said.

Opus died in May 2017, leaving Gibson without a guide dog, and heartbroken.

“It was horrible,” he said.

Gibson managed to get around with a cane, making it to Dimitra Yoga in Rehoboth Beach for his massage clients and also treating clients at his home.

Still, it was daunting.

“I was used to getting around with a dog, and now I had to use a cane,” he said.

But good fortune returned in October when Guiding Eyes for the Blind found him a new partner. Argo, a 2-year-old black Labrador Retriever, now accompanies Gibson everywhere.

The dog is getting used to Rehoboth Avenue and all the new sights and sounds. It may take more than a year before Argo is sure of his surroundings, but he's a fast learner.

“I can't wait to see us in another year,” Gibson said. “He has such skills and is so intelligent.”

And just like the first two guide dogs who became part of Gibson and Marshall's lives, Argo is part of the family.

Climbing into Gibson's lap as they relax at home, Argo is content to fall asleep. Gibson wouldn't have it any other way.

“You two are a perfect match,” Marshall says.

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