New Patches, Stronger Message

We received a package in the mail this week – a new service vest for Ripley. Now, her old service vest is still in great shape, despite being about three years old. It is sturdily made, wears well, and all it needs is an occasional washing to make it look sparkly again. So why invest in new clothes?

It’s about the message. When I chose the patches for the old vest, it was my first time outfitting a service dog. I had no experience being out in public as a handler, and definitely no clue what that was going to be like. Suffice it to say, I was ill prepared for the overwhelming amount of attention I found myself suddenly receiving. Everywhere we went, people wanted to say hello. Even though many folks have some clue that you’re supposed to be a bit reserved with service dogs, they simply can’t resist. Ripley’s small stature, the fact that she’s a yellow lab vs. a black lab or another breed of dog, and, on top of all that, she has a pink nose – god! People just can’t contain themselves! Then there’s the fascination with me. Because they can’t figure out what my disability is, since it’s not inherently obvious, they want to chat about that, in one way or another. Is this my dog? Am I a trainer? What does she do? Etc.

Medical Alert

Medical Alert Dog patch with caduceus symbol

Ripley’s old vest has three patches – one on the top (on her back) and one on each side. On her right side is a white patch with her name. We duplicated that on the new vest. On the top on the old vest is a white patch with a caduceus symbol, over the words “Medical Alert Dog.” When Ripley and I first began working together, this seemed like a logical choice, because I believed what I was suffering from, primarily, was a seizure disorder. They have “seizure dog” patches, but that seemed sort of personal; I wasn’t sure I wanted to give out that much information. So I opted for this patch instead. Little did I know what it would bode for me…an unending stream of questions. Because people don’t know what “medical alert dog” means. When they see the patch, it is an open invitation for inquiry.

Please Ask

Working: Please Ask Before Petting patch

I don’t mind answering questions about service dogs and what they do. I love my relationship with Ripley, and I love talking to people about all the wonderful things that are part of the lives of service dog/handler teams. But I like to be able to choose those moments. When it’s impossible to even grab a quick item at the grocery store, or walk through the lobby of the theater during intermission to go use the bathroom, because you are stopped by half a dozen people wanting to ask whether your dog can detect cancer, or if it goes to hospitals to visit sick kids, it can get frustrating.

On the old vest, the patch on the left said said, “Working: Please Ask Before Petting.” This felt perfect to me when I was first starting out. I figured that way people would respect our space, but could still say hello, within reason. Again, I wasn’t prepared for how often I would have to deal with this. When we are out in public, we are inundated with requests for greetings. At a large event, people are reaching out for Ripley one after another. It makes it absolutely impossible for her to focus on her job. It’s very difficult for me, because when I try to stand up for her, and set limits, it makes me feel rude. Which is crazy, I know, because she’s a service dog, and I shouldn’t have to feel bad about asking people not to distract her from her job. But I do.


Working Dog: Do Not Disturb patch

So we decided, let’s try an experiment. What about a new vest, with different patches, sending stronger messages? Maybe that will help the people we run into see that there is a boundary here. For the top patch, to eliminate that “what does it mean?” problem, I chose a symbol of a dog with the words “Working Dog: Do Not Disturb.” There is no longer the confusing medical symbol, no “medical alert dog” status. And there is the added language right there in plain view on top asking people not to distract Ripley because she’s on the job.

For the left side, I selected something bold and hard to miss – a red patch in the shape of a stop sign. It reads “STOP” in big white letters, then “Please Do Not Pet. I’m Working.” This retains some of that friendliness, by using the first person as if the dog is speaking, but still sets a clear, strong limit, saying, hey, I’ve got responsibilities.

Have to say, it’s a beautiful vest. Brand spanking new, the fabric almost stiff, the whites practically glowing. And I love the look of the new patches. But will they work, in the way I hope? May be wishful thinking. I might just have to step in and assist, learning how to stand up for those boundaries with or without red stop signs.


Coffee with a Canine

Hey, Ripley and I are getting out in the world! The blogosphere, that is. A few months ago, I was contacted by Marshal Zeringue, the host of a blog called Coffee with a Canine. He found me and Ripley through our Canine Bodhisattva postings, and invited us to be guests on his site. Eternally busy, it took me a while to get back to him, but I finally did. Marshal explained the rules – you take your dog out for a coffee date (to a cafe, or a park, or wherever), snap a few photos, and when you return, answer the questions that have been provided ahead of time. You got it, I said. We’re game!

Ripley and I are the featured pair on the Coffee with the Canine website on Jan. 8, visiting our favorite Cloverdale hangout, Plank Coffee – click here to read our interview. The participants (human) on Coffee with a Canine seem to all have some literary connection – writers, freelancers, bloggers, or artists such as photographers or children’s book illustrators. You can search through the archives by dog breed, with dozens and dozens of dogs to choose from.

It’s a fun place to pop in for a morning cuppa, meet a friend and revel in dog stories.

Here’s the main site link: Coffee with a Canine.

Grab some hot coffee and enjoy!




A Dog Doctor’s Discount

No dog loves going to the vet. Remarkably, though, Ripley has always been pretty brave about the whole thing. Our regular vet clinic, Wikiup Vet Hospital, is staffed with kind, compassionate and professional people, from front desk to techs to our main vet, Erich Williams. They have always been great to us, giving us a multi-pet discount, routinely comping small services like nail trims and follow-up appointments, and in general treating us like family. Ripley didn’t seem to mind going there, since it was usually only for regular check-ups and vaccines – especially since she was always rewarded with what we jokingly refer to at home as “trauma cookies” – cookies given as rewards after anything even remotely unpleasant.

All of that changed in 2014, though, when Ripley had a remarkably bad year. So bad, for both of us, that I couldn’t even write about it at the time. In January, late one night when we were at the house, and Sabrina was working graveyard, I stood in the kitchen handing out cookies to all three dogs. Ripley got a piece of the cookie caught in her lip, and tried to back out of the kitchen, beginning to act distressed. That helplessness triggered a melee, and all of a sudden, our 130-pound, two-year-old Great Dane was on top of her. We had a full-blown dog attack taking place in the narrow hallway. It took all my strength to break it up. Luckily that night, Ripley’s injuries were superficial enough that we could wait until morning for Sabrina to drive us to the vet to be checked and cleaned. We believed it to be a fluke, centered around the food, and became more diligent about similar situations.

But in late February, again late at night, again when Sabrina was working (remember, I can’t drive, and we live out in the country – almost an hour from an emergency vet clinic), the same thing happened. This time, though, the Dane tore Ripley’s whole back open. After finally managing to separate the dogs, my hands shook as I dialed first the number of a friend to drive us to a clinic, and then Sabrina, for advice on what to do while I waited. It looked ghastly, but was primarily a flesh wound, thank god. Still, Ripley was in shock, and terrible pain. It took nearly 90 minutes from the incident until I could get her to the clinic. Once there, I had to leave her overnight for surgery. Because the damage was so extensive, a few weeks later, a second surgery was required.

Needless to say, following this, we had to find a new home for the Great Dane, which in itself was a heartbreak. But Ripley’s safety came first, and it had become clear that it would be impossible for her to do her job, and help me, with the potential threat of this dog. (We found a wonderful home for the Dane through Rocket Dog Rescue of San Francisco. She was not a bad dog; she got along fine with our two male dogs. It appeared that the aggression was tied in with female-on-female competition, emerging as the Dane was reaching sexual maturity. Still, an unworkable situation in our home.)

When any dog has health issues, it is a concern for their owner. But when a service dog has issues, it has a critical impact on the life of the handler. What do you do if your dog is sick? If they don’t feel well enough to go out, or are injured? During Ripley’s recuperation from her injuries, I stayed home with her almost the entire time, and was very protective while slowly bringing her back into a working environment. One of the lingering effects of the attacks, though, was not fear of other dogs – but fear of veterinarians. Now she cowered, and tried to crawl under my chair whenever we had to go to the vet.

In November, I started noticing she was having discharge from her eyes, and immediately had concern. Her eyes looked red, and somewhat irritated. I took her to Wikiup, and had it checked out, but nothing obvious showed up. We tried some simple drops, and antibiotics. However, the problem seemed to persist. I became more worried. One of our older dogs, who passed away a couple of years ago, had suffered from sudden onset glaucoma, and had lost her sight because of it. I had been the person who raced her to UC Davis in the middle of the night, trying to save her eyesight. I panicked, thinking some similar scenario might be playing out. So, not wanting to take any chances, I made an appointment with the specialist, Dr. Rebecca Burwell at Eye Care for Animals.

Now, as soon as I made that appointment, I knew it would be expensive. She is a specialist, and just like human doctor specialists, she charges more. And 2014 had been a very expensive year in vet bills. I don’t have insurance for Ripley, so each of those surgeries and follow-up appointments and bottles of pills got paid for out of pocket. And most had been not at our regular vet, but at the emergency vet clinic, upping the price tag even more. But you don’t think about that. I mean, you do, but you don’t. She’s my service dog. She’s my Ripley. You do what you have to do to keep her healthy.

So Sabrina and I went in, and Dr. Burwell checked her eyes, the complete, thorough exam – and said they were fine. All she needs is over-the-counter eye drops to help with dry eyes. I was so relieved, just to know I had eliminated the bad possibilities. It was worth the $155 office visit.

I went to the front desk to pay, and pulled out my bank card. The receptionist pushed the bill towards me, saying, “Dr. Burwell has given you a discount.” And I said, “Oh, thanks.” And I continued handing her my card. The receptionist said, “No, you don’t understand. I don’t need your card.” And she pointed to the bill.

There, at the bottom of the bill, was the discount. It said, “Guide Dogs-Working: ($155.00) Total Due: $ 0.00”

She had written off the entire balance of the bill, the whole office visit. The receptionist said, “She likes to do that when she can.” I stood there in shock for a minute. Sabrina started crying. Then I felt tears in my eyes, too.

“Thank you,” we whispered. “Thank you.”


Another Restaurant, A Happy Ending

Sometimes all it takes is some communication.

A couple of years ago, Sabrina and I went to Sake O, a Japanese restaurant in Healdsburg, with Ripley at my side. We were met at the door with a perplexed, although very apologetic, waiter. He said, with great discomfort, “I’m so sorry. But we can’t allow dogs.”

I lived in Japan for three years, and know how much most Japanese hate conflict. It was clear on this man’s face. He was in a predicament, and wasn’t quite sure how to resolve it. I immediately moved into education mode. I said, “This isn’t just a dog. She’s a special kind of dog, who helps me. She’s a working dog, a service dog, who assists me because I have a disability.” He still looked very concerned, and glanced over his shoulder towards some of his co-workers, obviously seeking backup.

At this point, I reached into Ripley’s vest pocket, and pulled out my copy of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Business Brief, a one-page guide that explains the rights and responsibilities of businesses owners with regard to service animals. (You can find a link to it on my resources page here.) I handed it to him, and quietly pointed out the parts that were relevant. He took it, glanced over it, and with a quick nod, picked up menus, and escorted us to our table.

As we were choosing our food, we saw the waiter and another man who appeared to be the manager or owner reading the sheet of paper. When the waiter came to take our order, he said, “Thank you so much. This is very helpful. We have always worried – we didn’t know how to explain to other customers, if they would complain that there was a dog in the restaurant. But now we have this. We can show it to them.”

Later, as we were eating, we glanced up towards the sushi bar, into the open kitchen, and saw that the entire kitchen crew was reading our ADA Business Brief, heads bent in a circle. When we left, everyone smiled and thanked us for coming.

Since that time, we have returned to Sake O on several occasions, and we are always greeted warmly — all three of us.

These are the moments when I value community, communication and, as I do every day, the wonderful dog who keeps me safe.


Not Welcome

Ripley and I are out in the world so often, that I must preface this post by saying that the vast majority of the time we are treated very well. Store owners are gracious and kind, and respectful of our working relationship. However, that can make it even more of a jolt when we run into outright hostility. Nothing can change the mood of a casual outing so quickly as an icy encounter.

Today we were invited to go to Kirin, a Chinese restaurant in Santa Rosa, to celebrate the birthday of a friend. It was to be a large gathering, about twenty people. My friend Wendy agreed to drive me to the lunch, and we were the first to arrive. We waited a bit in the parking lot, until a couple of other women showed up. Then I headed for the front door. Ripley and I were the first to step inside, with Wendy close behind.

As soon as we crossed the threshold, the manager came forward and blocked our passage. Without saying a word, he began looking disapprovingly from me to Ripley, back and forth. He shook his head repeatedly, still mute, making hand gestures indicating that we would not be allowed access.

I said, “She’s a service dog. It’s the law. You have to let her in.” No response. I have in the past a few times run into problems in restaurants and stores managed by people who are first-generation immigrants. They have come from countries where service dogs are not a familiar concept, and are sometimes unaware of local laws. I thought this might be a similar situation, and tried to deal with this as I had dealt with it before. I showed him my Medic-Alert bracelet, and said, “I have a disability.” Still, not a word from him. I was beginning to wonder if language might be part of our problem. I tried several more times to state my case. Nothing. Then I reached to Ripley’s vest, and unzipped a pocket. I pulled out a copy of the Americans with Disabilities Act Business Brief, a one-page sheet that explains what rights and responsibilities businesses have with regards to service dogs. On other occasions, I have used this successfully to help with communications, as sometimes reading is easier than speaking.

As I attempted to hand the paper to him, he finally spoke. “I don’t need any papers,” he said, in very clear English, still with a disapproving and unhappy look on his face. “What I want to know is how the dog assists you. Does it guide you to the table?” Then I knew what I was up against – he knew all about service dogs. He just did not believe that I needed one. Legally, he was asking the one question that a business person can ask: “What tasks does the dog perform?” But he should have asked it the moment I walked in the door. Not kept me standing there, flustered and confused for three minutes, feeling judged.

At this point, several other members of my party had begun to gather behind us. I knew stating tasks at that point wouldn’t be enough. I said, “I have a condition called periodic paralysis disorder.” He was barely listening to me. But several women behind me began to speak up. “She’s a service dog. We have seen what she does.” Realizing that it was going to turn into a scene if he pursued it, the manager threw up his hands, and said, “There are two tables. Go ahead,” and walked away from us.

I felt terrible. We were in, but not welcome. I chose a seat at the end of the long table. The tables had large, round metal supports, so Ripley could not sit underneath. I had her lie down just alongside me at the head of the table. There was a small chest right behind her, creating a a narrow space for her that was protected. It was easy for the wait staff to walk around the chest and still get to every seat at our table to serve. Yet at one point, the manager tried to cut through that space, and couldn’t, seeing Ripley, and again, I saw the exasperation and hostility on his face.

It’s so hard to know what to do when finding oneself in situations like this. Part of me wants to stay, to prove a point. Damn it, I have every right to be here, and I will be here. I should be here to maybe make it better for the next service dog/handler team. And the other part of me says, why should I stay where I am not wanted?

We compromised. We stayed for most of the meal, but we were the first to leave. I felt a huge wave of relief when we stepped out the front door.

And I had to remind myself that this is an anomaly, and not the norm. For which I am sincerely grateful.


The Perfect Cup

We went to The Bean Affair, a favorite coffee shop in Healdsburg, and I ordered my usual soy latte. As always, I asked to have my drink in the big bowl mug – love the way that it fits in my hand, the warmth. When we went to the counter to pick up our drink, the barista said, “I chose a special cup just for you.” Couldn’t be more perfect. These are the days that we feel loved as a service dog/handler team. Thanks, Bean Affair!


A Big Heart

Tonight we went out to dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, Diavola in Geyserville. Sabrina, Ripley and I were meeting my aunt and uncle, who were driving up from Santa Rosa. It was their first time at the restaurant.

Our good friend Wendy Dayton introduced us to Diavola about a year ago, and it has become a regular haunt. They have killer thin-crust pizza, plus great pasta, and all of their ingredients are local, farm-fresh, and sustainably-raised. It is a cheery, bustling place, always busy particularly on the weekends. In warmer months, we eat out back on their cozy patio.

The nice thing about becoming a regular is making connections. Brooke has waited on us often enough to know that Sabrina’s favorite is the Dictator Pizza (so named because it has ingredients like kimchi/North Korea, jalapeños/Latin America, etc.), that I special order the pasta dishes to make them vegetarian, and that we share a single chocolate gelato for dessert.

But beyond that, from the very first time we walked through the doors of Diavola, the entire staff has been welcoming and attentive to Ripley. They all seem simply pleased as all get-out that she has come to dine with us. They do not cross the line, giving unwanted attention by asking to pet her, which would be a distraction. But they always make sure she is OK. One small gesture that happens at every visit – someone appears with water for her. The container varies. Sometimes it has been brought out in a plastic container, other times in a takeout box. But always, unprompted, someone brings Ripley water.

Tonight was no exception. Soon after we sat down, a young man arrived and set down a wax-lined cardboard takeout box full of water on the floor where Ripley was lying at my feet. I knew that she probably wouldn’t drink from it; I bring water with me, and make sure that she is hydrated whenever we go anywhere, usually stopping for a drink as we get in or out of the car. But it is such a beautiful gesture, that I appreciate it nonetheless. I thanked him, and forgot about it.

Floor Heart-crop-sm

The Water Heart

We sat for a long time through dinner, as we hadn’t seen my aunt and uncle in several months, and had lots of catching up to do. Finally, after two and a half hours, when we were among the last people in the restaurant, we stood up and readied to leave. As I moved out from my bench seat, I bent over to pick up the water dish to place it on the table, so no one would accidentally step in it. Glancing down at the floor, I did a double take. A heart? Was that a shadow? No. Some water had leaked through, and left a perfectly shaped heart on the floor.

I looked up into the box, now placed on the table. There it was — the heart, a darker shape inside of the box.

A little love for Ripley, from the wonderful folks at Diavola.



Farewell to Ripley’s Ride

I sold my Honda Civic this week. A very nice man named Agustin bought it for his 18-year-old daughter, her first car. I couldn’t have been more pleased with the entire transaction. Still, as I signed over the title, and handed him the keys, I felt myself fighting back tears. Just a car, right?

No, not just a car. In all likelihood, the last car I will ever drive.

My wife Sabrina gave me this beautiful, new blue manual transmission Civic coupe in 2006. I used it to drive over the country roads from Cloverdale to Calistoga, to my job at the Calistoga Tribune newspaper, hugging the curves, loving the way it handled. Ripley was already in my life at the time, as a companion animal. When she became my service dog four years ago, she became my constant escort. We buckled up safely with a back-seat harness, and away we went. Off to work each day, and then all over Napa and Sonoma counties to poetry readings, volunteer engagements, concerts, dinners out with friends. The Civic has always been my Ripleymobile. The trunk held a water dish, an extra leash, her blanket, a towel in case we decided to stop for a walk at the river.

We were a Honda family. Sabrina drives a Ridgeline truck, which is the “family” vehicle. If we’re going somewhere together, Sabrina drives – she has a commercial license, and likes to be the one at the wheel. So the Civic was always just for me and Ripley. Our independent adventure machine, our dynamic duo getaway car. Together, we logged 130,000 miles.

But in November 2012, I lost my license for medical reasons. I had had two episodes which my neurologist and I thought, in all likelihood, were seizures. Back in 2004, I had also had a seizure, and had lost my license . After a medication adjustment, and being seizure-free for six months, the license was reinstated. I anticipated a similar result. This time, I had actually delayed going to see my neurologist, afraid to tell him about the episodes – they weren’t quite as severe, and I was so fearful of that loss of freedom. How was I going to keep my job, now that I was commuting from so far away? Finally, though, I realized I had to do something, for my own health and safety, and went in for a checkup. There were no new episodes, and by early February, I was nearing that six-month mark. My neurologist was in the process of filling out paperwork to reinstate my license.

Then out of nowhere, in a single week’s time, I had more than 30 episodes. They were not quite like seizures, because I remained conscious. But I slumped forward, could not move or speak. As Sabrina put it, it was as if someone pulled my plug. We were terrified. Three times we went to the emergency room, with episodes happening even when we were at the hospital. The first time, I was diagnosed with seizures and they upped my medications and sent me home. The condition worsened and we returned two days later. A new doctor in the ER put me on a different seizure med, much stronger, then discharged me. The episodes continued, but now I also had slurred speech and a drugged appearance from the medication. Two days later, we went in again. The first ER doctor was back on duty. After running tests on my heart and other things, he came in and announced that my condition was psychosomatic. I was furious. I did not have another episode that night in the ER, and he said that proved his point. This left both of us confused, hurt and angry.

For the next year and a half, my life was in turmoil. My neurologist, the chief of neurology at Kaiser, who I like and trust, believed that these episodes were some kind of seizure, but could not understand why they were not responding to any seizure medications. (I do have a seizure disorder, but my regular seizures are controlled by my other medications.) My psychiatrist, who I also like and trust, believed that they were psychosomatic, telling me this did not mean they were not “real,” but that there was an underlying emotional cause, and I needed to work with a therapist to find out what was triggering them. So I threw myself into intense practice with another helper, my psychologist, looking for answers. Still, the episodes continued. My boss allowed me to telecommute for those first few months, until it became clear I was not able to reliably do even that because of the impact of this condition on my life.

In a very short time, I went from logging seventy-plus miles a day to being virtually homebound, on our rural property, more than four miles from town. And the Civic sat unused in the driveway.

I had to turn in my license and get a state ID card. For two years, I paid car insurance and registration fees on a vehicle that was virtually unused. Sabrina would drive the Civic periodically to keep it running, and I made sure it got oil changes. Always in the back of my mind, I thought, “If it’s seizures, we’ll find a medicine. If it’s emotional, I’ll figure out what’s wrong. I’ll be able to drive again.”

Then in May of this year, I went for an appointment with my neurologist, and I had one of my “episodes” in his presence. That is when he made the diagnosis, finally, that has explained everything – and also changed everything. I have periodic paralysis disorder. This isn’t something that is going to go away with medication or therapy. There is no cure. And someone with this disorder is not safe behind the wheel of a car.


“All My Children Have Paws” license plate frame, Animal Rescue Site

As you can see, it still took a while for me to fully come to grips with this. To reach the point of letting go. Even though I have been relying on other people for transportation for two years, somehow having my Honda in the driveway gave me comfort. I still had my car. Someday.

But it was finally time to say goodbye to the Ripleymobile. Thanks for all the great times, for the adventures, for keeping us safe. For the incredible freedom, which I appreciate now only in retrospect.

And a humble, huge thank you to all of the wonderful people in my life who have stepped forward to help me stay connected with the world. Dog hair and all.


Invisible Disabilities

Have you ever seen a person park in a handicapped spot, then watched them exit the car, and thought, “Well, they certainly don’t look handicapped.” In your eyes, there is no evidence. No walker, no wheelchair. No crutches, cane or noticeable limp. And for a moment, there is that annoyance, or even a flash of anger, thinking this person is a pretender, a fraud? Someone taking advantage of the system? Because wouldn’t you love to have that handicapped spot, right in front?

But there are so many illnesses and disorders that are invisible to the naked eye. Fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, lupus, MS, compressed discs in the back, other spinal injuries causing pain, early onset of Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) – all of these can lead to either a loss of muscle strength and/or pain which makes walking difficult, and that handicapped placard a necessity.

When I am out with Ripley, my service dog, I encounter a similar problem. From the outside, to the casual observer, I seem perfectly healthy. Here I am, walking with a service dog. People try to make sense of that. Although few would ever approach someone to ask about their handicapped placard, because there is the additional attraction factor (people are fascinated by working dogs), total strangers feel free to strike up a conversation everywhere we go.

So this is what I hear:  “Who do you train dogs for?” “Are you training her?” or even “Is that your dog?”

This despite the fact that Ripley is now nine years old. Yes, she does look good for her age, but anyone paying any attention can see the whitening around her muzzle. And she is clearly not a one- or two-year-old yellow lab. You can tell that simply by looking at her body.

I am hesitant to discuss my medical history with strangers. It feels so personal. But I have decided here, now, to tell my story, in the interest of education, in hopes that it might help others.

I have a seizure disorder. This is, thankfully, right now completely controlled by medication. The medication causes some side effects. It can be heavily sedating, particularly at night. I also have bipolar disorder. This, too, is managed by medication, but is more tentative. I have to be careful about getting the right amount of sleep, not staying up too late, eating properly, watching for warning signals that my system is getting out of balance. I have pills to take as needed to bring myself back into alignment when things get wacky.

For these two illnesses, Ripley helps me in several ways. She is trained to respond to an alarm on my watch, reminding me to take my medications. (I tend to turn the alarm off, then forget to get up and actually take the pills. In fact, I did that just this minute.) If I get amped up, in a manic state, Ripley notices, and makes physical contact, pressing her body against me, which helps me to re-center. Because of the sedative quality of my medications, I need her for hearing dog skills at night. My wife, Sabrina, works a night shift. Ripley will wake me in case of nighttime danger — a smoke alarm, etc. She wakes me when the alarm clock goes off. I also have terrible nightmares, and get trapped in them, unable to wake myself because of the medications. Ripley senses my distress, and gets on top of my chest, licking my face until I wake up.

But the illness that has been kicking my butt for the past three years is something called Periodic Paralysis Disorder (PPD). I first had an episode when I was in my early twenties, but it was thought at the time that it was a seizure. Even three years ago, when the episodes started happening with alarming frequency, my neurologist thought they were some kind of seizure, and my psychiatrist thought they were some kind of psychosomatic reaction. With only a couple of seconds warning, I go into a paralyzed state. My arms, legs, and face become completely unable to move. I cannot talk. But I am fully conscious and can hear what is going on around me. The episodes last anywhere from three to ten minutes or so. I never know when they will happen. Sometimes I go several days without having one. Sometimes I have one a day. Some days I have as many as five, six, seven or more. The more I have, the more exhausted I become, as they have a cumulative effect. My muscles weaken, and I have a harder time recovering. I appear somewhat drunk after, with slurred speech, and have difficulty walking. I often have to go sleep to regain my strength.

It took a while for my neurologist to diagnosis the PPD. I actually had an episode in his office, and that’s when he realized what was happening. Then we did a genetic test, and confirmed the diagnosis — it is a genetic disorder, caused by an improper release of potassium at the cellular level. There is no cure.

I lost my driver’s license three years ago, and had to leave my job. I am now on SSDI, because I cannot hold down a regular job. I never know when and where the attacks will happen. I still go out and do things, but having Ripley is an absolute lifesaver. If I am alone downtown, and have an episode, I may end up slumped on the floor in the middle of the aisle at the hardware store. Or collapsed in a chair at a coffee shop. To outsiders, I appear to be asleep. But in weird places. Ripley’s presence alerts people to the fact that something medical is going on. She comes between my legs, places her head in my lap, watches over me until I come back into my body. I would not feel safe without her.

So, no. I am not training Ripley. I have a disability. Please do not make assumptions about people that you see out in the world. There are so many invisible wounds.


Small Wonders

Sometimes being out in the world with a service dog can be draining and hard. You receive a lot of attention – some of it good, some neutral, some negative – but attention, nonetheless. Gone are the days of being just “part of the crowd.” People always notice you. So there is constantly a sense of being watched, observed.

As I have just noted, much of it is good attention. Folks like dogs. They want to say hi, ask about Ripley, tell me about their dogs, just chat. They often want to pet her. All of this is OK, but at the end of a long day, when I have been asked for the umpteenth time, it begins to wear thin.

Then there is the neutral attention, the people who are simply looking. I’m not sure what they think, but I know they are paying attention, watching me as I stand in line, or walk across the room.

The worst, of course, are those who for whatever reason don’t like dogs. The people who think maybe I’m faking it, that Ripley isn’t a service dog, that I’m cheating, or that it’s not fair that they can’t bring their dogs everywhere. They are watching for the slightest misstep, an error, a reason to be able to ask me to leave.

All of this, of course, is exacerbated by the fact that I do, after all, have a disability. Sometimes I am not well. So I find myself sometimes in the situation of having someone trying to carry on a conversation with me about my dog when I am in the middle of having a physical reaction, a small medical crisis, that Ripley is trying to support me through. It would be funny, if it weren’t so ridiculous at the same time.

So it is with deep gratitude that I receive the small wonders that arise during my forays out in the public – those brief gifts that come, unbidden.

One happened this week. I went to Plank Coffee in Cloverdale after a short meeting, having about half an hour to kill before my driver was scheduled to come pick me up for an afternoon of errands. When we go to Plank, we always order the same thing: a large soy latte in a big red mug, and one of their fifty-cent luscious peanut butter dog biscuits, which Ripley gets to eat just outside on the sidewalk, as snacking indoors while working is taboo.

After making short work of her cookie, we came back inside and took a seat. Our barista said he’d bring the latte to our table. I pulled out a notepad, and started going over some lists. Moments later, he delivered the steaming mug of coffee – with a surprise. The baristas there often make a design with the foam – a leaf, or a heart. But here, rendered perfectly, was my dog’s face. The barista smiled and said, “Special portrait.”

That simple gesture erased every little ounce of negative energy I was carrying. I was so touched. And as I sipped that latte, with my beautiful, faithful service dog at my feet, that face stayed intact, right to the bottom of the cup.

As I got up to leave, I brought the mug back to the counter, and said to my barista, “Look. She’s still there!” He grinned, and said, “That’s because she’s well behaved, just like yours.”

Nothing could tarnish the glow of that morning. Thank you for the small wonders, and kind gestures, granted by so many of you out there.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved
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