Through a Dog's Eyes
By Jennifer Arnold
Early one cool September morning when I was sixteen years old, I jumped out of my bed, headed for the bathroom. A split second after my feet hit the floor, my bottom followed. I knew I hadn't tripped or fallen over anything. When I tried to stand, I found that my legs would not hold me up. I remember feeling totally confused. What I didn't realize at the time and couldn't possibly know was that I'd just taken the first step of a lifelong journey that would ultimately provide me with a remarkable gift.
The diagnosis was multiple sclerosis, and the prognosis was that I would likely never walk again. I fell apart. As a teenager, the most important thing to me was being with my friends, something that suddenly seemed impossible. I was particularly upset because the school I had attended my whole life wasn't wheelchair accessible, which meant that I wouldn't be graduating the following year with my class. I was convinced that any kind of life worth living was over. In retrospect, having met incredible people through my work whose wheelchairs have never slowed them down, I am ashamed of the way I reacted. I am grateful that my work has given me the opportunity to learn that being "healed" and feeling "well" isn't so much a physical process as an emotional one.
I was the youngest of four children. As my dad's medical practice was well established by the time I came along, I had the privilege of spending a great deal more time with him than had my brother and sisters. Dad and I would take long walks, play tennis, and go fishing at a nearby lake. I adored my mom, but Dad and I were best buddies. Neither of us was prepared for the shock that September morning brought. My sudden illness was particularly hard on him. More than the physical implications, he worried about my mental health, I think. Dad realized that I needed to have something on which to focus, something hopeful.
As fate would have it, he had recently read about a woman in California who was training dogs to help people who used wheelchairs. Knowing how much I loved animals and hoping to give me a reason to keep fighting, he contacted the woman. Unfortunately, she couldn't send a dog as far as my hometown of Atlanta. Rather than being disappointed, Dad grew determined. He decided that a similar program was surely needed in our part of the country. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, he met with a CPA about setting up a nonprofit program he named Canine Assistants. Three weeks later, Dad was walking on the sidewalk along a nearby park when a drunk driver on a motorcycle jumped onto the path and hit him.
All night, I stayed in the waiting room of the ICU of the hospital where Dad was on staff. His coworkers Hooded the hospital. He was not only a gifted surgeon, he was a wonderful man, and Ins friends were using all their skills to keep him alive. We kept hoping for good news that night, though it never came. Dad was broken. The hands he had used to give sight to so many were literally crushed. His brilliant brain was damaged. For most of the night, his blood pressure was almost nonexistent. Toward morning, nature overrode the heroics of modern medicine, and my dad died.
The only thing that kept me from falling into despair was my anger. If you've ever faced such dark anguish, you know what a blessing anger can be. I had to fight the adversity or die myself. I decided the best reason to continue living was to make the world better for someone else who was hurting; otherwise, life seemed like a pointless exercise in pain. I grabbed the dream of Canine Assistants and I held it like a lifeline.
Over the next several years, my illness went into full remission and I slowly regained the ability to walk. How? I was lucky. That is the best answer I have. My doctors conjectured about why my condition improved so much, but then and now that seems unimportant to me. The simple fact is clear: I got lucky.
Mom and I were not so lucky when it came to money. There was a clause in Dads life-insurance policy that negated payout in cases of "death by two-wheeled vehicle," which was obviously intended for those riding on or driving motorcycles. The insurance company nevertheless enforced the clause in his case. Without the insurance money and the substantial cash flow Dads medical practice had brought, money became a problem for the first time in our lives. Mom and I learned a great deal about the value of buying in bulk, shopping at discount stores, Sunday morning newspaper coupons, and weekly sales at the local grocery stores. My siblings were just beginning their adult lives, married with young children or otherwise trying to establish themselves, so they were not able to help much financially. We did get help, though, from a number of wonderful people and one remarkable woman in particular.
When I was six months old, my mom found herself thoroughly overwhelmed with four young children and her need to "support" Dad in his medical practice, which meant going out a lot and being pleasant to strangers. Who would have thought that doctors would have to play such games? Anyway, money was starting to come in from Dads practice, so he suggested that Mom hire someone to help around the house. Through good fortune she hired a woman named Sallie Kate Brooks, one of the finest human beings I have ever known. From the beginning, Nanny, as my brother nicknamed her, was Mom's best friend and another mother to my siblings and me. After Dad died, Nanny continued to come to our home five days a week, even though we could no longer afford to pay her. Often, she would bring bags of vegetables from her husband's garden, and more than a few times she quietly paid the rent we could not afford to pay on the small apartment we now called home. Nanny helped to keep us fed and housed, but she also helped to keep us sane.