After I did my inpatient rehabilitation for my injury, I was impatient to go right back to college with the promise that I would continue physical therapy. Getting back to life was incredibly important to the both of us. We both knew that walking again may not be possible but getting a college degree could be. I was scared to go back to college and the question of whether or not I could finish tortured me the entire summer. I spoke with therapist after therapist while I was in inpatient rehabilitation about attending college as a paraplegic and I was hesitant to believe their encouragings. But while I was learning to tie my shoes, lay down in bed to put pants on and take a shower the new way, Dusty was working on my fall schedule at college with my advisor and making sure that the financial aid portion was still intact. I hadn’t been convinced yet that I was capable of finishing college but Dusty knew that I was.
As the beginning of the fall semester neared, we said goodbye to the therapists at Shepherd Hospital and with the attitude of “nothing is impossible”, I went forth into college. We were met with a community of love unsurpassed by any other that I’ve ever known. I had gotten to know some of the local women of Fort Jackson in South Carolina in a Bible study called Protestant Women Of the Chapel and two women in particular took me in as their own. They adopted me as my new Army moms and as they listened to my worries and fears, they gave me the humor and the courage to be able to face any trouble about the Army could and would bring in our future. Just a few weeks after my new moms and I met , they rose to the occasion of my accident and rallied behind Dusty every minute of every day. Dusty was able to come and go from the hospital due to the schedule they made to have someone by my side, whether it be a chaplain, themselves or another one of our many Army friends that they brought into our lives. Dusty didn’t spend a single dinner alone but was surrounded by Army families night after night. It was truly a miraculous time of the Army surrounding one of its own. When I awoke and learned all this, I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more loved.
We had motorcycle escort leaving the hospital to take us all the way home to Fort Jackson. The Army and Dusty had worked hard to find us an accessible home on post and the women of PWOC had unpacked us, decorated and moved us into a beautiful, settled house. Even my underwear had been folded. I got out of the car in our new driveway to cheers and shouts of love by the Buffalo soldiers, PWOC women and Army family that had come by to greet us. I surprised the crowd by showing them that I could stand up with my four arm crutches before being lifted by Dusty and carried over the threshold to our new home. And what a beautiful house it was. We both felt too young to live in a house this organized and picturesque, reminding us more of a Better Homes and Gardens ad than our previous college apartment. How blessed were we.
College started and there are volumes to write about those first few weeks. But quickly I learned one thing, that I was terrible at pushing my wheelchair through anything that wasn’t pavement. Sidewalk cracks? Fell right over. Cobblestones? Don’t ask. The lip from exiting the elevator to the tile? Yep. For some strange reason, seeing a girl in a wheelchair fall on her face out of her chair really freaked some people out and they thought they should probably call the ambulance. Dusty would get weekly phone calls from some stranger who’d taken my phone to tell him that I was on the way to the emergency room. Again. Soon I began to recognize and know the EMTs who’d pick me up,
“Well hey Julia! Looks like someone fell again, you do know that wheelchairs only work when you stay in them.”
“Hi Joe. Shut up.”
I was always fine but with a new spinal cord injury and fused vertebrae, falls meant X-rays and double checking. Dusty would have left his meetings, briefings or yelling at some basic trainee to arrive at the hospital to take me back to get my car. Eventually he started designing inflatable cushions that I could deploy from my chair and would poof! surround and protect me. Or tried convincing me to wear a bike helmet to class. I squashed both those ideas and promised him I’d get better at paraplegic-ing.
One of the hardest things to learn in rehabilitation for my spinal cord injury was learning how to fall. It seems counterintuitive to try to fall from a wheelchair, but falling properly will save a head and a neck from further injury. I rolled down hallway after hallway with physical therapists who had me on a gate-belt leash and tried tucking my head and rolling forward from my chair to the floor. Absolutely terrifying every time, no matter how prepared I was for the fall. I thought I’d grow use to seeing the floor rapidly approach my face and feeling my elbows scrape the ground, but here I am four years later and I’m still scared. I know I’m only a few feet from the ground, so it’s not as big of an impact as if I were one of those standing people but the floor has not yet become my friend. So when I was told about my options to get a service dog, my first thought was “Aha! A bodyguard to protect me from my nemesis!”
Some people are bad at swimming, some people are bad at dancing, I’m bad at being in a wheelchair. I was clumsy before the accident but now add clumsy with four wheels and sometimes it spells disaster. I’ll routinely forget to lock my breaks, I won’t look when I’m turning a corner and I’ll smack into a wall, or I bend over without checking to see what direction my wheels are pointing in to only forward out of my chair. So when Carlene told me during my applicant process that the main responsibilities of the dog would be to help me transfer, stabilize me and help me get back into my chair, I was ecstatic. Someone to help me dummy-proof being a wheelchair-er? Sign me up!
Fast forward a year and I now have by my side the most beautiful Great Dane I’ve ever seen. She watches me all day and trots along beside my chair whenever I leave the room. She gets upset if I go into a bathroom that’s too small for her and will try to stick her nose or paws under the door to reach me.
But the first scary medical emergency cemented a bond between Ethel and myself that I didn’t know we could have. I was home without Dusty and blaring Taylor Swift in the bathroom as I took a shower. I had my wheelchair by the tub and was sitting on a sound shower bench, but I’m not ashamed to say I was also doing a good amount of dangerous dance moves. Ethel had fallen asleep on the fluffy in our connected closet while she waited for me. The song changed to Katy Perry and I turned off the shower,
“You hear my voice, you hear that sound,” I sang along, badly, grabbing a towel.
“I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything…” I reached for my chair and grabbed the shower railing to lift myself to transfer, but the railing was slippery from spilt conditioner and my hand came slamming down on the edge of the tub as I tumbled down to the floor.
My legs had been twisted painfully in the fall and the shoulder I landed on was throbbing. I gasped a breath and opened my eyes to Ethel standing over me, her nose in my face. “Ethel, lie down”, I commanded from remembering that lying down was the first step in the procedure for helping me back into my chair. She pushed aside my chair to make room for herself to lie beside me next to the tub. She crossed her paws and watched me trying to slow my breathing down and stay calm. “Thank you Ethel, okay sweet girl. Okay, we’re okay. I’m okay. It’s going to be okay,” I spoke between deep breaths. I had landed on the same shoulder that had been injured in my spinal cord injury accident and it was starting to radiate pain down my back. “Okay.. It’s going to be okay”, I put my arm around Ethel and held her, burying my face in her neck. When I felt calm enough, I asked her to stand and brace, pulling me up to knees and able to grab my chair and transfer safely. I got into my chair and exhaled and then hugged her as tightly as I could while she smiled and wagged her tail. She got a Kong full of peanut butter, her favorite treat, before we went to bed that night.
But that experience flipped a switch for Ethel and I. When I’m stressed, she’ll come to my wheelchair and paw at my hands with her nose or lay down in front of my wheels. She watches me and knows my mood sometimes as soon as I do. She’ll relax when I relax and open her paws when she’s lying down so that I can rub her tummy. She knows now just how much I need her and I believe that makes her happy. When she’s free to roam around a nearby field and sniff to her delight, her mouth opens in the biggest grin when she gallops back to me when I call. She asserts herself into every interaction I have with the world, not so much for me to know that she’s my dog but for her to tell the world I’m actually hers. I’ll lean down and rub her ears, telling her she’s my good girl but when she reaches out to put her paw on me, I believe she’s telling me that “no, actually, you’re my good person.”