Adventures as a Recent College Grad Living with Chronic Illness and Training a Service Dog

Sunday, January 11, 2015

A New Year.... Prepare for Take-Off!

Seeing as how I have failed at updating this in over 6 weeks, this is much overdue. I've finished my first full semester at SFA, so only 3 and a summer between me and a Master's in Student Affairs and Higher Education (yay!!) 

Polly has been the ultimate rock star as far as training goes. She went to work with me for the last few weeks of the semester and has been great. Finals week got off to a kind of rough start with trying a new medication that landed me in the hospital for a few days, but I was able to still get everything done. I decided not to have Polly stay with me in the hospital though because as well behaved as she is for me, her puppy side comes out in full force with others.

For both Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks she flew home with me to Virginia. After 4 flights, I can see her confidence and she's pretty much a pro. She walks onto the plane, and follows directly to the seat row (we typically get the bulkhead row), and laws down by the window. Her small size is a definite advantage in that she easily fits into our seat space. I often get the aww's and asked questions about her, but I still think the greatest complement that people can give is when they are getting off the plane (I get off last), and they see her and comment about how they didn't even know a dog was on the plane. That's exactly how it's supposed to be- seen but never heard.


Despite her almost stealth abilities on the airplane, it was a confluence of events that included a poorly-trained wheelchair attendant, me almost falling out of the aisle chair while trying to board the plane, and Polly trying to fix everything and calm me down that led to us meeting a certain special someone. He offered to help as he saw me almost fall, but I politely declined and I thought that was just going to be the end of our encounter. Wow- I've never been so wrong in my life. 

He was on the flight from Houston to Dulles on his way home from being stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso. We went to rival high schools, I used to ride his best friend's mom's horse at shows, and he almost ended up at Virginia Tech as a student-athlete. Despite our paths having crossed many times before, it was on the airplane that we really saw each other for the first time. 

His assigned seat for the flight was directly in front of mine, and we talked the entire 3 hour flight, and really haven't stopped since then. My family and I went to Nags Head for Christmas, and he spent the time catching up with his extended family, but I will forever be thankful to my Dad for letting us come home from the beach early. We went out for New Year's Eve and the rest has been history.

In case you can't tell- Polly Approves :)
Now though, Polly and I are back in Texas and getting ready to get back to work tomorrow, and school starts again next Tuesday. He's back in El Paso, and 791 miles away (if you think I haven't looked it up, you're crazy). Yes, it's long distance but it's working very well so far, and I see more plane rides in mine and Polly's future. 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

We've been Working!!!

Miss Polly has been flying through her training. She will pick up anything I might happen to drop- and I mean anything. Car keys, pencil, cell phone, hair brush, food wrapper, receipt- I've realized in the last week or so I'm quite the klutz with how much stuff she has been picking up. She also will jump up and hit the automatic door buttons! Seriously- she is one very smart puppy!!!

With having our basic skills that help to mitigate my disability, we have started to venture out to more training on public access. We have spent over 30 hours at Petsmart over the last two months, and between that and going in to work on Fridays- we made the big jump. 

Polly went to class with me.

We started with my shortest class, that normally only lasts 30 minutes. Well, she sure did get to experience a lot in those 30 minutes! The whole class applauded at least twice, she was stepped over multiple times, and was taunted with a few offers of being pet. Despite all of this, her reaction stayed the same... 
I told her to stay laying down, and she did- for the entire class.

SHE'S JUST SO GOOD!!!!! So, she went with me to class on Wednesday evening also. The class was taking a field trip to another part of the building, in the middle of class. (I had not been aware of this because I had missed class the previous week...) It included a rather daunting exhibit by the Office of Multicultural Affairs that included being in the campus movie theater and then moving from room to room down a hallway- all of which was pretty much in the dark. Goodness- I certainly have a special dog to have not lost it. She's not perfect by any means, she still has a long way to go- no Service Dog is perfect. However, she handled herself better than I could have ever fathomed. If I had known more of what it was going to be like, I would have waited and chosen to not take her, but she sure did put her big girl attitude on and we got through it. And what's a better reward than getting to come out to lunch with me?!

So the next day, we had our first restaurant experience!

I chose to get out of my wheelchair and sit in a booth, so that way people wouldn't even see her or be tempted to come up. Shout out to all the employees at Newk's- they all acted completely professionally, just as they should with all service dogs. She laid under the booth silently the entire meal, and even picked up my phone after I dropped it under the table. 

I am so lucky to have her in my life, 
and am even more so looking forward to what 
the end of this year has in store for us!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

A More Formal Introduction- Polly!

If you happened to miss my Facebook announcement... everybody- Meet Polly!

Polly, Polly Pocket, Ms. P, Ms. Piggy, Peanut, Polly-wolly- All names that this smart little girl will respond to :)

If you didn't guess from the picture, she's a Black Labrador Retriever. She's now 10 months old. Her paws are still huge, but she's going to be on the very small side for a Labrador as she's only about 20" tall, and currently 60 lbs. 

As some of you may know- I haven't had the best luck in the past 2 years when it comes to being a dog owner. The first dog that I adopted all "on my own" was an Australian Shepherd (Blue Heeler). Despite doing what I thought at the time was enough research, and going with the thought of him needing exercise would make me get out and exercise (I wasn't using a wheelchair at this point). Needless to say, we weren't a good match. Through a friend I was able to connect with a great rescue group and he found the absolute best home with a young guy and they go hiking and spend days at the lake swimming. 

After Charlie found his home for life- a far better one than I could give him- I got Kety. Not going to write a lot, because it still hurts badly and am even tearing up writing this. Shortly after I got her she was diagnosed with Progressive Retinal Atrophy and within months was 80% blind. I had to return her to the agency that I had gotten her from- I didn't have a choice despite crying for days. I'll still always love my Kety-Choo. <3

After Kety came Max. I'm glad to report that he's doing really well and loves his family as much as they love him. Picture's from an update from just the other day. Forgive the zombie eyes :) I don't think he's missed a meal since he joined their family either ;)

After all of that heartbreak- I could just go on and on about how great Polly has been. I can't believe that I have only had her 2 months. She's such a part of my life, it's as if she's been here forever. We've been focusing on lots and lots of socialization- other people, all sizes of dogs, little kids, and been going on lots of "field trips" to Petsmart, PetSense, and even to work on Fridays. Next post we'll wow you all with just how smart she really is and all of the stuff she's already learned! But for now- Enjoy the pictures :)

^ At the Office                                                 ^ Soccer Games!

^ Howl-oween Costume Contest!

Sunday, October 12, 2014


So, I kind of explained what chronic illness I had in my last post. 
So here's to my witty attempt to break down that really big word!

Nope- not quite.

DYS- loosely meaning something's screwed up. Or, as Google so eloquently put it when I looked it up- "bad; difficult"

AUTO- short for Autonomic- the part of everybody's nervous system that is supposed to automatically control stuff like your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and digestion. Sorry Volkswagen, it's got nothing to do with a car. 

NOM- another part of Autonomic, I could have put them together- but if I hadn't separated them, how would I have gotten to use a video of Cookie Monster in a blog post?! 

IA- who knew these two little vowels put together at the end of some big fancy word means abnormal condition/disease?!

And there you have it folks- Dysautonomia. As far as how the heck to pronounce it- I have heard even doctors say it two different ways:

(the more common way to say it)

(the way I was told by my first specialist)

Chances are, if you can pronounce either one, or just have the faintest (haha) grasp of what it is if you ever hear someone else talk about it- Be Warned- that person is likely to get very excited that someone they know actually has heard of what they're going through.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Living with an Invisible Friend

Little kids get patted on the back and called creative when they have invisible friends. Mine is not so creative, but rather destructive. It's been reeking havoc on my nervous system since I was 14. Sometimes it will seem like it's on a vacation and I'm free of its cruel tricks, but it has only proven a matter of time before it comes back. 

My invisible friend is a form of Dysautonomia called Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, or POTS. In the last 15 months it has been more visible due to it now causing me to be wheelchair bound, but it's been around for a while. 

Researchers are still trying to find out why some people develop POTS, but they have had recent success in proving what it is.  

They have found that people who have POTS have a specific antibody that's abnormal, and the more antibodies a person has, the more severe their symptoms. This leads them to the belief that this is something called an autoimmune condition.

Enough fancy medical talk- the plain of it is that I have this disease that causes my nervous system to royally stink at its job. It can make my heart rate go sky high, my blood pressure go lower than a machine can read, my stomach to decide to boycott food, and for my head to feeling like it's spinning on a turntable. On the rare occasion- just everything seemingly stops and I faint due to not enough blood getting to my brain.

Why am I writing all of that? Because a certain friend (cough JUSTIN cough) just wrote an amazing piece about Living 'sick'. 

I'm plenty familiar with the feelings that he talks about. The people that are amazed at seeing me in the grocery store... The people who watch me get in and out of my wheelchair to the car as if it was a heroic act...The people that say "I don't think I could ever overcome what you have"

You don't know. Until you are in the situation- you just don't know. Just three years ago, I was Circuit Champion at HITS in the Jumpers. Today, I'm in a wheelchair and can't stand up for more than 2-3 minutes without fainting. I'm also going to call out another friend on here that has been through a life situation recently, Ashley. 

My favorite quote from Ashley is from a conversation about a situation in a grocery store where someone saw her shopping and came up and called her an inspiration. Why? Because she was bald. Her thought process afterwards that she shared- Don't call her an inspiration!

I think it's really common to look at someone that is facing a different struggle than yourself, and to think that they need help, or seeing them spurs you to think how fortunate you are. While those are both completely valid thoughts- it's the comments that come out of peoples' mouths that can make someone living with any disability- invisible or not- feel like they are less of a person.

I think the take home point is that I OWN my illness. It does NOT own me. I HAVE Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome. It might change the way I get around and the way I have to plan my day, but I still get to do what I want to do, and I AM STILL ME.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Max's Retirement

There are dozens of criteria that separate a good dog and those capable of being a service dog. Max had shown nearly every single one of those character traits. Together we always struggled with encountering other dogs. Well, about 2 weeks ago now, unfortunately Max crossed a line of unacceptable behavior. He went to go bark at another dog and ended up pulling me out of my wheelchair, and then drug me about 10' before he stopped. I have worked with him on this with a trainer for months- it's his nature to be protective of me. As absolutely heartbreaking as it was in the moment, I feel that it's my responsibility as a pet owner to make sure that he is happy, and he wasn't anymore because I didn't feel that I could safely take care of him.

He has found a wonderful family with a police officer, his wife and two kids about an hour away from where I am in Texas. I dropped him off this morning, and through all the tears, it was very evident how much he will be loved and spoiled. He has land to run and play on and his favorite type of humans- kids to play with!

So, this is the last post of Max and Me. With the help of a few local breeders, I was actually able to already find another dog. I'll share more details in the coming month, but want to be more sure of it working out before sharing.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Seven Days of Hospital Beige

Last Monday I headed to the ER for the third time in three weeks. My blood pressure was low, and I was overwhelmed with fatigue and muscle soreness. Well, my Potassium level turned out to be low- high cardiac risk low!

I asked the ER physician why this would keep happening. My potassium kept dropping and no one could give me an explanation. He said he didn't know, but would give me some through my IV and could either send me home or admit me. He suggested that I see a gastroeneterologist because he thought it might have been a malabsorption issue. I said that it could take a month to get in to see someone, and this was just going to keep happening- so up to the floor I went. I didn't know what I was in for... seven days of looking at the beige walls of my hospital room.

First- My new primary care doc is awesome! I've had specialists in the past say how I needed a primary care, but never really had one. I now understand the value- he's the hub of the wheel and was great in making sure that I saw the right doctors to figure out why my levels kept dropping. This was so refreshing since I have become used to always go back and forth from specialist to specialist, now I don't have to!

Second- Max was more than pampered in his week of vacation from work and stayed with my co-workers who really are some of the most amazing people I have ever met. I am so incredibly lucky to have them in my life right now.

Third- After a couple days of testing, including having blood drawn from an artery (OWW!!!), a nephrologist (Kidney Specialist) concluded that I am very likely to have a recessive genetic disease known as Gitelman's Syndrome . All of the blood work and other lab tests show that I am a textbook diagnosis. Being someone that has never been called textbook in my life- hallelujah! So I started new medications, and after a couple of days to get used to them, and for my levels to get back to normal- I got to go home! :)

Happy Side Note:
I got an appointment with an autonomic specialist in Dallas for later this month! It first looked like it was going to be a really, reallly long wait to get in to see one of his colleagues, but he took an interest in my case, so now it'll only be a couple of weeks!
Hospital Beige... :(