Back in 2009, I was matched with Maggie, my NEADS service dog. I had waited eight and a half months after my interview for the call to come in that I was to meet and train with my new partner. At that time, I was newly diagnosed with two incurable conditions, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and Sarcoidosis, creating the possibility of my being wheelchair-bound for life. The training happened for a full two weeks, living on campus and hoping I would pass and be able to come home with her. The training was rigorous. Prior to meeting me, Maggie had been training for almost eighteen months, so I had a great deal of catching up to be ready for her. Fortunately, Maggie and I bonded rapidly, and we did graduate and come home together.
Just six days after settling home with her, it was early morning with our house filled to the brim with our four adult sons, wives, and grandchildren home to celebrate Thanksgiving together. I woke up to horrible pressure on my chest. My immediate reaction was why was this new service dog on top of me? I couldn’t breathe! She was supposed to be sleeping next to my bed. When I was finally able to respond, I realized she was not on top of me but instead next to me on the bed. She was attempting to reposition me to bring airflow back. I had stopped breathing and she was intuitively attempting to save my life. My sternum had dropped down so much that I was not breathing when she had jumped up onto the hospital bed. I was going to lose my life had it not been for Maggie - she sensed I was in trouble and successfully provided a critical lifeline.
For all these years since, this small black lab has been by my side, protecting me by opening handicap doors, picking up items I drop and has continued to alert me when my oxygen levels have gotten too low due to the sternum, trachea and hyoid bone shift. The amazing thing is that she was not trained to be an alert dog, but we became so bonded that she figured this out on her own. I can be in the pool kicking and if my breathing starts to concern her, she will go from sound asleep at the end of the lane to suddenly staring at me. The message to me it is time to get out. One time, I decided to push myself, not listen to her alert, and do just one more lap. She sat up and backed up like she was going to jump in if I didn’t get out! So today, I listen to her for she seems to know more about how my body is functioning in real-time than I am willing to accept.
But my little lifeline is getting older. She is now 11 years old and I was advised to consider retiring her before she passes so I won’t be alone with her gone and on the waiting list for a match. Even thinking about leaving her home and leaving the house with her replacement almost makes me sick to my stomach. However, I don’t want to take that chance of losing her and not having another dog to work with. It was suggested that with both home together, Maggie will help show my new partner the lay of the land in terms of what she has been doing. So the interview did happen, and I am now on the list, waiting for my next match.
She is ready to rest but I don’t feel confident she is ready to stay home and watch me leave. The few times I step out of the house, I find her at the door wondering where I am. So, this transition will be a huge adjustment for us both.
Recently at a conference where I did a presentation about service dogs, I was approached by a woman that asked if I had seen the movie called Adele and Everything After. It is about a woman in the same circumstance that had to make this emotional decision if it was time to retire her cardiac alert service dog. I cried through most of the movie, but in the end, observed her new service dog come home with her and instantly bonded with retiring Adele. Instead of jealousy, it was instant love and excitement for her older dog to have a playmate. I hope that will be Maggie’s reaction too and she will learn to be at peace knowing I will continue to be watched over and protected. While our mutual needs may end, our love and friendship will be with both of us forever.
This will be her deserved future - rest, happiness and peace after years of service. I can never thank her enough for keeping me alive, happy and loved.
May life be kind to you,
Ellen Lenox Smith
Author of: It Hurts Like Hell!: I Live With Pain- And Have a Good Life, Anyway, and My Life as a Service Dog!
The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of National Pain Report.