From the Archives: Summer 2009 issue of Lupus Now
by Teri Allbright Wildrick
When Lynda Michelson brought home a Labrador retriever named Elliot, right before Thanksgiving in 2007, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship -- and newfound confidence and mobility for Michelson.
Michelson and her husband, Mark Buckley, live in St. Louis, MO, and their children, Lauren, 19, and Jason, 21, both attend Kansas University. The close-knit family takes a vacation together every year. When they went on a cruise 10 years ago, Michelson had constant headaches and was exhausted throughout the trip. "I had always tanned very easily, but my body reacted strangely [this time]. I was so tired and I couldn’t get going," she says. When she returned home, she noticed a rash on her face that wouldn’t go away. That summer, her family doctor and a rheumatologist diagnosed her with lupus.
For several years after that Michelson continued her part-time job with a school district program, Partners in Education, made up of community facilitators who identify resources that can enhance schools’ curriculums. She also did volunteer work, becoming a board member for her local Lupus Foundation of America chapter. But she began to have trouble with balance and walking. Stairs at home and at work became a problem, and she had to rely on a cane. "I started wondering how I was going to manage," says Michelson.
While researching resources for Partners in Education, Michelson learned about support dogs; she did additional research and was surprised to find out that she qualified for one. Soon after she met with Rob Schenberg, director of American Service Dog Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the training and placement of service dogs for people with disabilities.
Schenberg introduced Michelson to Elliot, then a very young dog. "You could see the connection between Michelson and Elliot immediately," Schenberg remembers.
Michelson began taking Elliot to obedience classes twice a week. One of the volunteers taught Elliot how to pick up the leash or the cane when Michelson dropped them, and how to match his pace to hers when they walked together. When Michelson took Elliot home to meet her family that day in November, the experience was so successful that he moved in for good.
By law, Elliot is allowed to go everywhere with Michelson. After giving up work for health reasons, she says, "It was getting to the point where I wasn’t sturdy and I was dropping things and I would be embarrassed and uncomfortable. Elliot gave me a whole different sense of freedom."
She adds, "At first I worried about taking him into places like restaurants and movie theaters. I was worried that people would say negative things." But she found the opposite to be true.
When he is working, Elliot wears a vest that says "Do Not Touch," so that he isn’t distracted by attention from strangers. Nevertheless, "Elliot is an ice-breaker," Michelson admits. "People see this dog and start talking to me about him."
Michelson also has rheumatoid arthritis in her wrist, so Elliot has been fitted with a special harness for walking. With the dog, the harness and the cane, Michelson walks in her subdivision to build up her muscles. "He’s able to help me if I fall," she says. "He’s been taught to stand and brace and I can pull myself up with him."
Now, Schenberg wants to teach Elliot to turn on lights. "I don’t need that now," says Michelson, "but I don’t know what I’ll need in the future. Elliot can be trained to do almost anything."
To obtain an application for a service dog, contact American Service Dog Association (ASDA) at 1521 Virginia Drive, Ellisville, MO 63011, call 314-607-2361, or email Rob Schenberg at email@example.com.
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