Prior to 2002 my life was active with a career as biologist, natural science illustrator and sensei. Inspiration for my art came from hiking remote areas: from the cascades to the Catskills, from the chiraquahas to the catoctins and hundreds of places in between. Then, in 2002 I was diagnosed with a progressive, deteriorating neurological disease that severely limited my mobility. I was also advised by my doctor that I should no longer be driving. Because of my disease I was forced into retirement. My horizons went from being limitless to living at home. Social contacts slowly diminished. My wife, Cat fought daily for my survival. Because of her I am here, today, and have gained perspective of the toll being a “caregiver” takes on her quality of life as well. Cat needed to continue her career to keep us financially afloat. As her work days often went well beyond “8” hours I was left alone for long periods of time. For Cat, this time was filled with anxiety – what if I fell (as I frequently did) and was severely hurt? what if I couldn’t call 911? Her “what ifs” became as frightening as my life became more depressed.
In 2009, we learned about service dogs that assist people with disabilities. We began training with the volunteer “angels” at Fidos for Freedom. In January 2010, I was matched with my service dog, Derby. Derby was trained to assist me with my daily life. If I dropped an item, Derby was there to retrieve it; if I fell, and was able to pull myself up, Derby would “brace” allowing to use his strength to do so; If I fell and needed assistance, Derby would bring me the phone so I could call 911. If I fell, and Cat was home and I needed help, Derby would take my red bracelet off and find her signaling I was in trouble. Because of a fall that severely injured my right arm, resulting in it being “frozen”, by tugging on my right sleeve, Derby could assist in me undressing. This is what Derby was trained to do. But his contribution to our lives went far beyond his training.
In summer 2011 I spent 6 weeks in the hospital because of a craniotomy and it’s ensuing complications. The operation left me deaf in the right ear, without a right vestibular nerve and right side facial paralysis that left problematic vision in my right eye at best. Of course I was delighted to be with Derby when I returned home, but I was surprised at how Derby now assisted me with my new limitations. I would watch Derby’s reaction and now know when someone had come to the door, or if the phone was ringing. Derby became my “gateway” for new social contacts. When in public, I was no longer the “handicapped” people have been told not to stare at. With Derby at my side, people would assist us in opening doors, rather than rushing through because I was “taking too long”. People would now happily come up and engage in conversation about their dogs. The smiles we received whether at hospital or mall allowed me to believe that once again, I was a part of humanity.
Because of Derby, Cat has been able to go to work with less anxiety knowing that now I am not alone. Perhaps Derby’s greatest gift is not from assisting but due to breed. Derby is a golden retriever and as such sees “life as a party and he is the guest of honor”. Derby exudes a love of life and loves people and rely on his devotion and affection not just to “pick things up” but to “pick me up physically and emotionally. I like to tell others that because of my Derby, I no longer see myself as “handicapped” or “disabled” but as “handi-abled”.