I once listened to a wonderful lecture by Janine Shepherd, an Australian Olympic Skier who was involved in a terrible accident, leaving her paralysed. In her talk, ‘A Broken Body is not a Broken Person’ she describes her journey back from this devastating, life-changing event to wholeness and happiness.
As a registered physiotherapist, I had met many paraplegic, quadriplegic and amputee patients (amongst other physical disabilities) in the course of my training and work. Despite each person’s specific challenge, they all had one thing in common – they were all people. They all had things they loved and things they hated, they had strong moments and weak moments, they loved and were loved. As a rule, these individuals were not trying to be inspirational or role models to anyone, but as a common thread their individual experiences seemed to imbue them with a deep strength and wicked sense of humour, that made you want to be more like them, rather than feel any sadness or pity. My experiences with persons with disability continued when I became involved in disabled sport. My field was specifically disabled riding, but I met incredible athletes from various sporting codes, and one of my favourite sports to watch will always be wheelchair basketball – those guys are nuts! In the course of my work with disabled riders, the title of a video I watched has stayed with me forever: “There is no ‘dis’ in Ability” was emblazoned across the cover. This phrase has always stuck with me, and has always underpinned what I try to achieve in my own practice as a physiotherapist. The focus is not on the disability – the aim is to take whatever the individual’s best functional abilities are, and to make them better at that.
At the time that I became familiar with Janine's’s talk, I was privileged enough to be the week-time guardian of an amazing soul packaged in a Border Collie’s body. When I met Lucky, the body he lived in was already quite badly broken. Lucky had had a fibrocartilaginous embolism, a blood clot in his spine, which had left him paralysed. Surgery had failed to improve his function, and his guardians were advised to euthanise him. His wonderful guardians, DV and Stephan, were willing to do whatever was best for Lucky, even if it meant making a difficult decision. But something held them back, and this is how I came to meet Lucky the Dog. Not Lucky the Disabled, or Lucky the Pitiful, or Lucky the Sad Case. Lucky was 100%, unequivocally DOG. Lucky loved squeaky toys and swimming, and walks in his cart, and playing with other dogs. Lucky loved meeting new
people, and got equally as excited about going home for the weekend as he did coming back to his ‘second home’ at the rehab centre on a Monday morning. In fact, Lucky pretty much loved everything. He loved life. What he did NOT like was being held back from living life (sometimes we needed to enforce some downtime when he overdid things – this made him sulk). What baffled Lucky the most was pity – people who met him saw his disability and felt sorry for him. Lucky had no idea what their issue was. At any given opportunity he would make himself part of whatever activity was happening, with absolutely no sense of self-consciousness or shame. He reacted to expressions of pity with mistrust and confusion. What I found consistently interesting to observe, is how other dogs almost without exception accepted Lucky as just another dog. Occasionally, some dogs would be a bit confused about how he moved, but they got over this rapidly, and Lucky could invariably be found in the middle of a game. Other dogs tended to treat him just as any other dog – no pity, no contempt, no special treatment… just a dog. Just one of the pack. Lucky even achieved a Beginners Trick Dog Title! Through this he showed that he was now just differently abled, not DIS-abled.
As responsible guardians, myself, DV and Stephan regularly reviewed Lucky’s quality of life. We were all prepared to let him go when he was ready, not on our time. I use a tool called a Quality of Life Scale as a guideline (Original concept, Oncology Outlook, by Dr. Alice Villalobos, Quality of Life Scale Helps Make Final Call, VPN, 09/2004). This scale looks no only at the pet's mobility, but also at other factors such as social interaction, interest in games/activities, ability to eat and drink normally, as well as pain. Lucky hit some rough patches over the years, and each time we consciously weighed up the pro’s and con’s of treatment over euthanasia. Each time that we thought it might be time to let Lucky go, his fighting spirit shone through and proved to us that he was still in the game.
Lucky taught me a lot, and he made many friends and fans. 5 years after his initial spinal injury, Lucky finally told us that he was tired, that he was ready to rest his broken body, and his guardians gave him the dignity of peaceful passing. However, my greatest memory of a dog that I had only ever known with a broken body, is that he was 100% a whole dog, an amazing spirit and a wonderful companion. I am grateful to have shared 5 years with him, and to have played a part in his extra 5 years of life.
Treasure your pets!