Sally And Ethan, And Canine Partners
by Sally Whitney
I haven’t been unwell all of my life, I actually had an idyllic childhood. I had very loving parents, clear boundaries and excelled at school. I did a host of extra-curricular activities. I was full of enthusiasm, bubbly and overflowing with energy.
I was trying to decide which university course to do and I eventually decided that medicine was the course for me. I applied to various universities and was accepted into several, but I chose Edinburgh University to study medicine and was all set to go in September 2005.
It wasn’t to be. I became unwell in the February before my A Level examinations and I started to experience symptoms of fatigue, pain, not being able to sleep and generally getting weaker. I had to go to some of my exams in a wheelchair and unfortunately passed out during some of the modules.
I was living at home, sleeping a lot and dealing with various and random symptoms, and I would use a manual wheelchair when I was outside of the house. Over 18 months I deteriorated rapidly to the point of being bed-bound, unable to move and having violent seizures up to four times a day. I spent eight months of my life in hospital fed by a feeding tube.
Much later I was diagnosed with Lupus and Ehlers Danlos Syndrome as well as a host of other related conditions. The autoimmune conditions I have, of which Lupus is one, mean my own immune system attacks various organ systems and cells in my own body, such as my thyroid, my autonomic nervous system and blood vessels. Ehlers Danlos is a connective tissue disease, where my connective tissue in my body, particularly the collagen, is faulty (in fact, too stretchy). This also affects various organs in my body, such as my bowel, bladder and blood vessels too. It also causes me to have allergic reactions to everyday things and to pass out easily.
In 2013, I had such a severe seizure that I stopped breathing. I was put on a ventilator with a breathing tube and went in to Intensive Care in an induced coma and spent a long time in hospital From then on, I was dependent on 24 hour care and unable to carry out the simplest of my own needs. I have permanently been in a wheelchair ever since. Day to day I use a wheelchair at all times as, I have heart/circulatory problems that can cause me to faint or can induce very full on seizures. a I also suffer from a lot of fatigue and pain
Unfortunately, most of my organs are involved and so I have symptoms from all of those too.
Life before having a canine partner was totally different. I was 100% reliant on human care. I felt incredibly vulnerable as it’s hard to have so many needs that can only be fulfilled by another person, who is ultimate there to do a job and is being paid. Negotiating the dynamic of being cared for took away my sense of independence and self-assurance. I was also having seizures far more regularly and my health was unpredictable. I was constantly in and out of hospital, particularly into the Resus part of A&E and in intensive care.
Before Ethan, I felt vastly different to how I feel now. I lacked purpose and industry. I couldn’t see how I would ever become a meaningful member of society again. I was trapped in my own home and I wasn’t able to make contact with the outside world, so I felt isolated. My condition was so complex and hard to diagnose that I was often met with disbelief and the assumption that it must all be in my mind. This lead to me feeling that I didn’t believe I was a value to anyone. I refused to entertain the idea that this was for the rest of my life, so I was constantly fighting against my body, against my disability, and fighting to rid myself of the identity of a ‘disabled young woman’.
I found out about Canine Partners through my cousin, Jessica, who lives in London and saw a demonstration at Canary Wharf. She knew how much I was struggling and how much I loved animals.
Depending on family members and carers is difficult, however Ethan alleviates the oppressiveness that requiring 24 hour care can bring. He allows me an independence that I otherwise wouldn’t have. The tasks that Ethan does are willingly able to be done by my carers, but achieving them on our own, between me and Ethan, brings a fabulous sense of freedom. We are able to understand and respond to each other’s needs in ways that relieves the endless emotional pressure that can be part of receiving care as a disabled person, feeling guilty about my constant needs and apologising for them or worrying about the strain on my human carer, especially family members.
Ethan’s impact has been apparent in all areas of my life. He can do a huge range of things for me, both at home and outside the house. We are able to carry out lots of activities of daily living on our own, which feels fantastically liberating For example, we are able to get ready in the morning together. Ethan will help me shower, passing my towel and picking up dropped items, and then we will go into the bedroom, where Ethan will choose me my pants from my drawer. He then gets me my washbag – I say ‘spray’, he opens the drawer and gets it out, and then he puts it away again. Ethan also opens my laundry basket, puts my dirty laundry in and closes the laundry basket again. These things seem small to others, but to me they are really empowering and give me a sense of joy doing them with Ethan.
Ethan and I are constantly learning new tasks, as he loves the stimulation and I love it too! Over the summer we learnt a few new things – when it got a bit hot Ethan learnt how to open the door, put the door stop in to keep it open (positioning it carefully) and then remove it and close the door afterwards. He’s learnt to get his squeezy cheese out of the fridge and put it back, remembering each time to close the fridge door. He will also get his own jacket so I can put it on him. When we get home he will take off his own jacket, I fold it up and then he runs to the drawer and puts it away. The number of tasks he can do seems endless; I’ve given up keeping tally!
Ethan does more for me than just tasks; he is a constant comfort. I no longer have any time when I feel alone or isolated, I always have my trusty sidekick with me who loves me and believes in me no matter what. He doesn’t see my illnesses, my weaknesses, my flaws, but only me, Sally. His unconditional love and constant desire for cuddles is a treatment in itself.
There are several things Ethan and I can do together that I couldn’t do before, and one of those things is keeping me safe and helping me in emergencies. For example, I am now able to go the bathroom and shower on my own. I wasn’t able to do this before and always had to have someone with me to make sure that if I passed out, fell or had a seizure, that I would get immediate help. However, Ethan is now trained to throw open the bathroom door, run to a carer, tap their thigh until they come and he will then lead them back to the bathroom. He has also learned to get help in any situation when I start fitting or faint, demanding that humans help! Ethan has also trained himself to pick up on symptoms leading me to become unwell before I am aware of them and he alerts me to them. We have avoided many dangerous situations because of this phenomenal skill. These things mean I can be alone in a room without the need for constant checks- what freedom.
In public places, Ethan and I are an entity together and are perceived totally differently from myself on my own. The questions from others that would previously focus on my disability, the pitying glances I would receive or even the feeling of invisibility all disappeared, instead to be replaced with admiration and curious questions about my handsome Canine Partner and the instigation of real, adult conversations surrounding him and the help he provides. I’ve become visible again. I’ve become more confident to present myself to others and I feel more a part of society.
All these things have led to a gradual change in self-esteem. My previous notions of having no worth were overturned by Ethan’s reliance on me and things we could achieve together. This self-propelling, symbiotic relationship meant that I could imagine myself in other meaningful roles, contributing to my community and being of value to others.
Ethan has in fact given me a chance at a family life, an opportunity I never thought I would have. Together, Ethan and I joined the dating scene. There was always going to be three creatures on a date, but Ed is a very special man who was both accepting and understanding of my particular situation. Ethan came on our first date and then the many dates after that. Ed had to accept that there was already a man in my life, albeit canine, who I was full committed to. We were on a dog walk when Ed proposed and Ethan was with us throughout our entire wedding. He acted as my dog of honour, he walked me down the aisle and he was also the ring bearer. It was a fantastic feeling having Ethan with me in the church as we got married. Together, we are a family.
In terms of relying on people, I still need humans to carry out a lot of my care. But the tasks that Ethan and I can do together give me a lot of freedom and bring real joy. I no longer have a dependence on others to make me feel safe and secure. Ethan has transformed my life so much that he’s shown me I no longer need to reject the notion of my own disability, by accepting my illnesses and embracing my weaknesses new realms of life have opened up to me.
He’s bought me so much happiness and so much colour to my life, that I have an incredibly hard time imagining my world without him.