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Losing My Dog Taught Me How I Want Others to Treat Me With Chronic Illness

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It’s Friday, Feb 18, 2022 at 12:28 p.m.

• What is Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome?
• What Are Common Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Symptoms?

One week without you.

It’s a quiet feeling I’ll reluctantly get used to — maybe someday.

I miss the stirring in the corner. That sound of restlessness that brings a tiny, 10-pound white-and-tan, wriggling, happy, sassy shih tzu shooting out from behind the ottoman to demand something.

A treat?

Outside time?


A quick rub-down and some acknowledgement?

I’d gladly do whatever you asked of me. Every. Single. Day.

How’d we get so lucky to have you in our lives? Well, here’s how it all began.

One fateful day in September 2011, our kids politely asked if they could bring a dog into our home. They eventually started crying, and as the tears flowed, I was convinced like always. I may act tough, but I’m a pile of mushy optimism inside, and I’m pretty sure they all knew it. Soon after, a fuzzy white cloud bounded into our living room. A tiny, vibrant, confident four-legged creature looked right at my home and said, “OK, this will do.” It sounded more like “Ah-woo-woo-woo-woo-woooo” to our ears, but it was pretty obvious exactly what she meant.

At that time, I was in and out of countless doctors’ offices and many different medical facilities from Iowa City, Iowa to Rochester, Minnesota, and I was still struggling to find answers to the complex medical challenges I was experiencing on a daily basis. I was no longer able to walk the way I used to — my legs only took me so far, and then they would stop. It was all pretty shocking at the time. My husband was relegated to shower assistant, clothing-buttoner, and feeder and waterer of all living things in our house, including myself, and he carted me to many of my appointments and to work and back home. To say we were picked up right out of our lives and transported to a whole different way of living is an understatement — and one we fervently denied. We even purchased a life insurance plan for me since things were looking grim enough to need to plan for a shorter future. I was eventually diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and many of its comorbidities — illnesses without a cure. So what was I doing bringing another mouth to feed into my household? Well, here’s how that fits into this story.

Sadie Poo Henderson, who was likely born in 2009, was a stray of sorts. She lived on the streets, and our kids helped rescue her. Then — to my ultimate surprise and delight — that seemed to give Sadie the license to rescue others. Sadie was — as we would call humans — a “people person.” She walked right up to everyone she ever met and lightly placed her forepaws onto their pant legs, looking longingly up at them with her brown, beautiful, understanding eyes, as she said, “Hi! I love you!” (Or as we could hear, “woo-woo-wooo.” That was her way of living. She blessed so many people — even “pup doubters” — with her simple, elegant presence and captured a tiny piece of their hearts forever. I had the pleasure of watching her do this over and over and over again. It isn’t just what she did for others that held her dear to me, though — it’s also how she helped me cope with my medical struggles.

I didn’t choose this lifestyle. In fact, I did so many things to stop this disease from ending up this way that I can’t even name all of the efforts I made. There I was, quietly resigned to the life I led and grateful for the many blessings I find weaving in, out, and around it every day. Sadie was one of the biggest — she was such a strong motivation to keep moving forward. She also has two “sisters” — yes, I also adopted two other wayward four-legged souls, and am so very glad we did. 

Sadie started it, though. She “alpha-ed” our other dogs with her indignant, take-charge attitude, and they let her. It was a source of endless enjoyment and entertainment to watch them all interact. I can’t even figure out how the dynamics between all of our dogs worked, but it was an amazing process to be a part of. 

Last Friday, Sadie had a difficult time trying to leave this world. It was like her time was up, and she knew it, but she was reluctant to let us all go. At least as much, we were reluctant to give her up too. She did her job in our home very well, and I am so proud of her. A piece of my heart will be forever marked with her paw prints. My life is forever altered by her loyal and steadfast companionship from our town all the way to Texas, Connecticut, Minnesota, and Missouri — there aren’t enough hours in a day to name all of the places she was so excited to visit with us. Whether she accompanied us for doctor’s appointments or family visits, she was delighted to go along for the ride.

As I type through tear-stained glasses, willing the anguish and the happiness through my body, into my fingertips, and onto the keyboard to tell the fervent story of how a tiny, little dog ultimately saved me, I want to take this moment to express how very deeply disability can affect a person’s life. This is something I feel fervent about, but am hesitant to talk about it with people who don’t experience it themselves. Judgment is an even tougher pill to swallow than the handfuls of pills I have to take every day. There are articles all over the internet outlining how life-changing and stress-inducing disability can be, but disability is vastly misunderstood by the “well” community. 

As people with disabilities, we may have been part of “well” society and have played by its rules, so getting “kicked out” and forgotten about is sometimes a daily chore to cope with. Accepting vast changes — from income changes to physical and mental adjustments — can be mind-boggling when you’re also trying to manage whatever illness or injury may have placed you on the sidelines to begin with. Oftentimes, these illnesses are just managed, and as time rolls on, they escalate. This may create a new reality to have to accept regularly as physical limitations may become more prevalent with each passing day. Lots of people often think, if they need something, they’ll call, and someone will answer — and they’ll keep up with others too. I’m here to say that is not the case in my experience. I’ve experienced and heard some others say that the disability community are not only a forgotten group of people, but we also aren’t sitting on the sofa eating bonbons and watching “Family Feud,” waiting to think about calling a friend. We may feel like we are caught in a trap — one we rarely have enough wherewithal to climb out of. And when we climb out of the holes we dug, where did everybody go?

I understand, I do. I’m the queen of making excuses for everyone, and I’m great at believing them, and I’m fine with that. Sometimes people take it personally that they don’t receive a phone call from someone who’s “sitting at home.” But, hey, who on Earth is lining up to confront others? Not me. 

Except there’s this tiny dog. Her name is Sadie Poo Henderson, and she said she was my friend, and she told me I’d never be alone, and she’d love me no matter what. (Ah-woo-woo-wooooo-woo-woooooo…) She taught me the value of acceptance and of taking a hard situation and turning it into a life worth living. (And she’s got me covered because our dog Lola, who was brought here for her, is kissing all my tears as I type.) But not everyone has a Sadie Poo (and a Lola and a Boo), and every day is not a “Sadie Poo can fix this” kind of day. Not all struggles bring folks out of their shells and to a phone, and not all people are comfortable enough with their own illnesses to ask for help. Having an illness that will not go away is often a barrier, and some people eventually slowly stop acknowledging such difficulties because they are so misunderstood. 

No one is perfect, and not everyone requires companionship as often as some, depending on personality and temperament. If you are helping out grandma or calling your friend who is too sick to work, I commend you. Please understand what a big deal that is, and please learn why so you can share it with others. Likewise, if you are dealing with chronic illness, I hope your social needs are met on a level that makes you comfortable — be it from a dog, a bird, or a person who calls or texts you every once in a while. To those who want to help, I encourage you to ask the tough questions, be interested in others’ struggles, and care on their level. Let’s just try to meet each other where we are — not where we think each other might be.

Some days, our timing may be off, or our dryer is on the fritz, and our lunch was burned, and the cat puked in our slippers, and we can’t get to the phone and call each other back. In our busy lives in the “fast lane,” it can be hard to find the time for others. Still, think about the amount of time you spend regaling acquaintances with stories of your daily life, and try to remember there are folks out there who only make it to doctor appointments on a regular basis, so they may not have hours to communicate during the week, the month, or even the year. Remember Harold in accounting who had to take early retirement for a massive stroke. Remember Luella down the street who used to have a beautiful garden until her severe arthritis took away her ability to “florify” the neighborhood. Remember Susan, whose child is sick so she never comes to gatherings any more. The list is endless, but you don’t necessarily have to walk a mile in others’ shoes to empathize with what it’s like to live with a health condition.

Just listen to Sadie Poo because she says it best (Ah, woo-woo-woo-woooo). Translation: “I had an important job of taking care of my humans, and for some reason, my mommy was always home with me. We had the best life.”

Be like Sadie Poo.

This story originally appeared on Chasing Zebras.
Image via contributor.

Originally published: March 15, 2022
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