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How Our Rescue Therapy Dog Saved My Life When I Developed Meningitis

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There were no alarms. A heavy, inviting blanket of slumber enveloped me and I could have slept for hours. Apparently I already had, since my partner Joan had left for work five hours earlier. My head was sinking into a memory foam pillow as something nearby kept making a low grumbling noise. I floated in a groggy sea of duvet. So when this rumble persisted, my eyes reluctantly opened to see the black and white face of our Pointer/Pitt mix, Stella, at the side of the bed. She was insistent. Letting off a steady growl, which was unusual for her.

Normally she never even barked – a trait that earned her the title of “silent film actress.” During the school year there might present an occasion where Joan would leave for work at some ungodly hour of the morning and Stella would alert me. Darkness still dimming the room, I’d sleepily protest and urge the dog to “Go lie down” in her bed. Ever obedient, she’d comply and we’d both enjoy a few hours’ sleep before starting our day.


Stella is a therapy dog. A term that, these days, can be applied to all manner of animal, reptile or bird. These creatures can provide any application of “therapy” under the sun. But for me, our 9-year-old mutt is the sun around which my daily life orbits. She wasn’t trained as such, but her innate ability to tap into a human’s emotional or physical hardships is powerful. And though as an older dog she’s wisely mature and capable of sitting still for long stretches of time, she still exhibits a playful side.

Rescued as a pup at the Evanston Animal Shelter by Joan, Stella (and Joan) came into my life three years ago. One could say they rescued me. Three years into a lifestyle adjustment of living with lupus, I didn’t think I’d ever meet the love of my life, let alone move into her condo by the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago. That this person came with a bonus dog was like two-for-one happy life.

The three of us fell into an immediate easy rhythm. Joan would get up at dark-thirty (any time before sunrise) to take Stella on her morning constitutional. They would amble along the water’s edge, the dog running ahead, Joan bending to pick up beach glass in various shapes and shades to add to her burgeoning collection. I would sleep in and wake to find love messages left on sticky notes adhered in different locations.

“Hi!” they’d say, in perfect second grade teacher handwriting. Or, “Have a great day!” Or sometimes a simple heart etched in felt-tipped ink.

My favorite was when she’d leave one on my Thera Vest, a twice daily machine designed by Hill-Rom to help clear my lungs of the bad stuff. Its use entailed strapping a life-jacket-type vest around my ribcage and plugging in to air hoses that inflated and vibrated my torso for 20 minutes straight. If you’ve ever ridden on a wooden roller coaster, the vigorous jostling is akin to that. Without the funnel cakes or the fun.

This sticky note invariably encouraged, “Do Your Vest!”

Anyone with lupus or chronic illness can attest that many of our weekly regimen range from tedious to torturous. The Vest fell somewhere along the latter end of the spectrum. But Stella, God bless her instinctive therapy dog heart, made it fun.

After I’d brushed my teeth and put on a jog bra (sometimes over my pajama t-shirt), Stella would “lead” me over to the machine by looking back at me and wagging her body toward it. Once I was seated in the sturdy upholstered wooden chair, Stella would strike a still pose and wait with dramatic anticipation. Her gaze held steady as she’d watch me fill my nebulizer with hypertonic saline (I call it a “Neti pot” for the lungs). Next I’d slip on the Vest over my torso and click each strap one by one. As soon as I made the final click, she’d rise slightly on her haunches. Still crouched until the very moment I pressed the start button, the Vest commencing its shake like a rickety rollercoaster on ascent, Stella would thump her paws in downward dog play.

Stella is a smart dog. The payoff would be two-fold. Demanding a neck and shoulder massage, she would scoot her back up to my knees and sit like this for several minutes. I had 20 to go myself, so why not make the most of it? The floor humming under her haunches was like putting a quarter into one of those vibrating beds in 70s motels. She knew that in my stationary position I was locked in.

Probably sensing my fatigue after a few minutes, she would then excitedly go retrieve her favorite orange and blue ball from her wooden toy box. Unfortunately for the dog, my awkward throw often resulted in a disappointing rebound off a doorway wall. But ever the optimist, Stella pounced enthusiastically to fetch it, acting like she was having, well, a ball. I was never a good pitcher for games of fetch, even at a wide open park in my healthy, able-bodied days. So my dog then, and now, both learned to be good sports. And make a very short run for the pass.

dog with ball

With my wooden roller coaster treatment barely halfway through, and pitching obligations unfulfilled, Stella would then take her ball and toss it out of her own mouth. She’d once again playfully chase its few feet trajectory. Then she’d “entertain” me by rolling on her back and wiggling from side to side, the orange and blue ball lolling in her jaw. I’d laugh. Out loud. Every time. And every time, morning or night I did my Vest, Stella would do her trick. She must know that laughter is really really good for the lungs.

Some days I’d be able to take her on a mid-day walk. We measured the change of seasons by the lake. Summers would bring throngs of weekend revelers. If there was a human passerby, Stella would wag her whole body to greet each person she encountered. The only thing our Pitt mix really despised about the beach was the flies. You’ll find most Pitt owners describe their dog as “so sweet, he wouldn’t hurt a fly.” Stella, while decidedly sweet, could, however, hurt a fly. She hates flies more than any other living creature. When she was a young dog, the flying critters terrorized her from behind where she couldn’t reach them. Imagine if you went for a walk every day and flies swarmed your rear end. The biting kind. One of this beach’s only pitfalls.

The three of us actually loved winters the best. Unlikely as that is, a Chicago winter by the lake was magical. Not a person in sight, the beach would cover with a white tundra of snow so ethereal it looked like the surface of the moon. At sunset the landscape would glow in pastel blues, purples and pinks. Waves permanently frozen in sweeping formation along the shore, sometimes the lake’s entire surface froze over and white snowfall cover extended its horizon forever.

dog sitting next to frozen lake

We eventually traded in condo living for a 1940s Georgian two miles away in West Rogers Park. Now with a spacious basement, ample storage and sufficient garage, Joan was able to mow her very own postage stamp lawn in the summertime as I reclined on the shaded patio. Never far away, Stella would sniff out adventures in the garden foliage and periodically check up on me. Her attentiveness usually entailed a thud of her big Pitt head on my lap, her light chocolate eyes staring soulfully up at mine.

Joan was on teacher summer mode, which usually meant projects around the house. Though she labored while I lazed, she never made me feel guilty for it. Just another reason I consider her my “lupus hero.” Fortunately for Stella, lying around all day came naturally to the canine, so our lifestyles suited perfectly. Two summers in our new house went by, with a handful of times in between where I’d been hospitalized with rare lung infections. By the time fall rolled around, we found ourselves feeling anxious I might get sick again. ‘Twas the season.

Having slept through Joan’s departures to work that first week of school, it seemed Stella had broken of her early morning alarm habit.

“Go back to bed,” I mumbled in instruction. The overwhelming pull of slumber making me press the snooze button.

“Grrrrrr. Grrrrr. Grrrrr,” the alarm sounded.

Reluctantly, I sat up. At that moment my head felt dizzy and struck with exploding pain. I was dumbfounded and couldn’t make sense of my surroundings. Stella stood, steady, by the side of the bed. Her eyes locked on me. In my stupor, my first thought was that she needed to go potty really badly and I needed to help her with that aim. It never occurred to me that she was the one who was very much helping me. But I suppose that has always been the guise of a masterful therapy dog.

woman sitting on the stairs with her dog

I stumbled toward the top of the staircase where Stella waited for me. Rock solid, she flanked my right as I descended each step holding the railing on the left. I wobbled toward the back door to send her to the potty. The screen door closed, but the dog wouldn’t budge. Just stood there looking at me, refusing to do her business. Unbeknownst to me, she had way more important business to attend to and she was doing it right now.

No stranger to infections, and pains, and inflammation, and repeated hospitalization, I didn’t get myself too alarmed by this level 10 and rising headache. In fact, the perfect explanation for it was that I’d had a new kind of treatment 24 hours earlier. It’s called IViG and stands for intravenous immunoglobulin therapy. Intended to help immune-compromised folks like me to fight off all these infections, I’d hoped to avoid yet another hospitalization. At the infusion center the day before, I’d sat for three hours as hundreds of very robust immunoglobulins from all over the country marched into my veins.

A headache was something I’d been warned was a side effect, so I brushed any fear out of my mind. Having a lifetime of lung infections as an Achilles  heal, it never occurred to me I’d get one in the meninges of my brain.

I stumbled to let Stella back in the door and go about taking my morning medicine. There would be no Thera Vest this morning, lest my head should shatter into a million pieces. So I staggered out of the kitchen to find a resting spot. The landing wall of our lower staircase seemed a good place to steady my swaying equilibrium as I propped myself there. Stella, who’d been a few feet in front of me decided it imminent to wedge herself between me and the bottom step.

I assumed she’d flanked me for me to protect her. There was a renegade housefly buzzing around the front glass door and Stella seemed on high alert. At least I thought that was the culprit of her chagrin.

With the morning already becoming noon without Stella leaving my side for a single minute, I watched the lazy fly buzz slowly and land on the window sill. Stella looked scared. And in my sludgy mind, I vowed to help.

“I’ll kill it for you, Girlie,” I pronounced as I stumbled around the living room and waved a blue plastic fly swatter. I couldn’t comprehend why my movements were in slow motion. The lazy fly kept evading me. It seemed such an easy target! Why did I keep missing? I looked back at Stella hunched on the landing, an expression of mounting concern growing on her face. And it wasn’t about the fly. Eventually I gave up and returned to our spot next to her on the landing. I called a neighbor, who came down immediately.

During one of my past hospitalizations, she took it upon herself to get Stella officially tested and certified as a therapy dog. If nothing else than for the soul purpose of the dog’s being allowed to visit me.

“She’s a natural,” Nora explained. She’d dutifully studied a 332-page manual on all that would be expected of both the dog and her as a handler. Stella, in the meantime, brushed up on her leash command skills and passed an American Kennel Club “Urban Canine Good Citizen” exam with flying colors. Well, with black and white patches and spots.

I asked what made the “urban” different than regular good citizen award, and learned it meant she would sit at corners and not react to cars. The latter had me surprised, because I’d always known Stella to practically lunge at a car in the hopes it would take her to a really fun destination. That’s how much Stella loves people. She didn’t care where she’d go. As long as she got to “go,” one of her favorite words. Sometimes just to humor the dog, I’d ask Joan, if she was moving our car from parked on the street around the alley to the garage, to let her ride in the back. Stella would jump from the car and enthusiastically burst out into the tiny yard like she’d just arrived at some sprawling dog park. Or our old beach by the lake. The advantage to having a yard was my limitations on ambulation. But we all missed the beach.

Even the four evaluators at Pet Partners were smitten with Stella. She’d had to pass things like a “restraining hug” from behind and demonstrate comfortability with a jerky pat. For this mutt any kind of touch or attention is good, so she lapped it up. Some higher degree of difficulty tests included people coming at her with a wheelchair or a walker or medical equipment. Not even a flinch. But the skill that most impressed the judges was her “reaction to a loud noise.” The importance being that in hospitals there are carts and machines and things being dropped that might startle a dog. At testing, Stella did “not” react so steadily that the evaluators said they had never seen anything like it.

If you are visiting our home on a weekend or most days in the summer months you will know why. Now that Joan has her own house and her makers space tool bench, she has used very loud tools for home improvements. After Stella had passed Pet Partners testing, one afternoon I observed her lying on the hallway carpet watching the world go by out the glass doorway. “Dog TV” I call it. Suddenly, loud hammering erupted from the floor right below us. Joan was working on the basement ceiling. The bang was so startling, I jumped a bit. Then observed Stella unmoved from her position, not even batting an eyelash and I had to laugh.

But this morning, Stella was displaying another kind of stillness. Nora was standing inside our front door talking to me in a Charlie Brown teacher voice about “barometric pressure changes” in the weather and how she’d go fetch some ginger ale. She took Stella at my request, into the yard to go potty, as I considered what to do. Maybe I’m just dehydrated, I thought, imagining the ginger ale on my tongue. Nora propped me safely up in a chair and retrieved a can from her house. She then had to head downtown and said to text if I needed anything.

I assured her I’d be OK when she left. Though it soon became clear this supposed barometric pressure was skyrocketing like an explosion in my head. Stella leaned her body against me as I made various phone calls, seeking advice. I called the infusion center, then Joan, and considered going in to get some hydration. I asked if a headache was normal. To which the center nurse replied yes. But the puking onset was not normal. The ginger ale hadn’t made it past my lips.

Think, Kyra. Called another neighbor to take me to the ER. Her home phone did not answer. I’d recently downloaded a Lyft app. I could take the car service to the hospital. The room spun in front of me, bringing me down on my knees as I reached for my necessary clothing. On second thought it’s not in the job description for Lyft driver to actually “lift” me into their car. It was time to call…

“911. What is your emergency?” The words swam in my mind as if heard on some TV show. Four hours after Stella had woken me up, it was finally occurring as an emergency.

The paramedics banged on the unlocked door, as Stella shifted and paced anxiously in front. Watching them through the glass. Finally they tried the latch. Surrounded and attended to me. Someone had put Stella out the side door and I could hear her muffled bark in the distance. The sound of a neighbor’s voice assuring me she was here asked if I needed her to come in the ambulance. I’d already sent Joan the text and in a surprising presence of mind asked my neighbor instead to “stay with the dog.”

Today is my 12th day in the hospital recovering from meningitis. I’ve since learned it common, and dangerous, for a person with meningitis to want to keep sleeping. There’s no telling what would have happened had I not been woken up by Stella. Suffice it to say, the infectious disease specialist informed me in no uncertain terms, it was “lucky I came in” when I did.

woman and therapy dog in the hospital

Stella came with her handler to visit on the second day in ICU. When she arrived in her vest and was all business, my heart wanted to explode out of my chest with pride and love. Hers too was a contained explosion, as she gently placed her head under my limp hand and carefully avoided machinery. There was no ball playing or goofy wiggling. I could feel the seriousness and the affection and the unbelievable intelligence that emanated out of her. I’d asked for a visit just as much for my sake as for hers. She didn’t know where I’d been carted off to that day. I wanted her to know that she’d done her job, and because of her I was still here.

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Originally published: July 31, 2017
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