As if climbing Ben Nevis wasn’t enough for one person, Sally’s whole story – including life before MS, having an autistic child, the traumas of the medical diagnosis and the life-enhancing arrival of Harmony – has been published this year by Harper Collins.
In September 1989 I married the man with whom I had travelled, climbed the Scottish Munroe mountains, got engaged in Tibet at Everest base Camp and life was rosy. In June 1990: life as I knew it, with all the plans for the future, stopped. I woke up with no feeling in my right leg. After falling down a flight of stairs I was admitted to hospital where they tied my intermittent eye problems to the current problem. After many tests was given the diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis.
We had three lovely children over the next seven years. I had relapses and remissions but always picked myself up and trudged on. Sometime the relapses were horrible, like the time when I couldn’t pick up a brush to do my little daughter’s hair. That relapse left me with terrible pain in my right arm. Drugs helped but never took the pain away.
When my youngest daughter was born it was obvious that there were problems. That summer I knew my M.S. was worsening and it was confirmed I had gone into secondary progressive M.S. or, as I put it, the slow crumble. From then on our lives became one long battle. Attending Melissa’s appointments and supervising her daily therapy left me with little time and energy for anything else and what there was left was spent on my other two children. Work had to stop. I ended up with crutches, then a Zimmer but my shoulders gave out and I had little choice to start using a chair. Being wheeled about did not come easy to this independent being. I always responded to these restrictions by having an adventure.
Soon my M.S. worsened and I was in terrible pain with spasms in my leg, back, arm and hand. Nothing could be done. Then Melissa’s behaviour worsened and at the end of that summer she was diagnosed as being on the Autistic Spectrum in addition to her learning disability. Life felt like one long battle that was exhausting everyone. There was no respite from the pain and disability for me and from Melissa’s terrors and demands. The tentacles of depression were entangling me. The entire family had become disabled by my and Melissa’s needs. Our world was closing in on us.
Then I found out about Canine Partners and I saw that they would partner people like me with an assistance dog who could do all the tasks I could no longer do. Clara, my middle daughter, was my carer; she would get things for me, take my socks and shoes off, and pick things up for me. I never did the washing anymore and if I wanted the kids I had to shout for them from the bottom of the stairs. Shopping was becoming more impossible. Could this, possibly, be an answer? I rang and was warned that there was a long waiting list. I applied and for the first time in ages felt so excited.
I was invited down for an assessment day in December. I was moved to tears when meeting the dogs and seeing what they could do. That first day I met many dogs but one stood out. I met a lovely golden Lab/retriever cross called Harmony. She was gentle but on exercise was SO much fun :I felt a lift of freedom as I hared around their field in a scooter playing with this lovely dog who was overjoyed to meet me the second time we met. At the end of that day I could hardly breathe, would they tell me they had a match and would it be Harmony? Yes and yes! I left with confidence, I was going to have a dog to help. A lot of people thought it was another of Sally’s mad ideas. After all how could a disabled person look after a dog and exercise it and things? Finally April and the two week training course arrived. In summary it was exhausting, exhilarating and pure joy. From day one we had to look after “our” canine partner and them us. I could and did exercise her and care for her. If there was a problem the trainers were on hand to solve it.
When we arrived home, Harmony immediately settled in. She loved doing the tasks and Clara said “I’m redundant”. We trained together with the family to get her to go and find the children if I needed them. Then came our next miracle. One day Melissa went into one of her panic attacks, she screamed, she was frozen. Harmony went straight to her. Gently nudging her until she sat down, Harmony promptly sat beside her. Melissa buried her face into Harmony’s hair and stopped screaming. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house apart from Melissa! Shortly after that Melissa refused to settle for sleep and was distressed. Harmony and I went to her and Harmony curled up in a ball while I told a story and reassured Melissa. As I was leaving the room Harmony just looked at me and stayed put. This is unusual as she sticks to me like glue normally. After about 30 minutes she appeared once Melissa was sound asleep. Tasks that no one had trained her for!
Now I am better. I get out every day and have made new friends amongst the dog walking community. I do my own washing and shopping. Harmony has now learnt to put things in the washing machine rather than purely taking them out. I have the energy to do things. I drop things I don’t have to ask a stranger or my family to pick up after me. She even goes for help if I happen to fall out of my wheelchair. When the spasms are bad Harmony lies across my pelvis and licks my hand. Again, a task she hasn’t been trained to do she “just knows”.
Harmony has also rescued me. In bad weather Harmony and I were near to the end of our walk in the woods. The back wheels of my disability scooter caught the ice, and I ended up hurtling down the slope backwards. Harmony tried to stop me. I ended up, in a heap at the bottom, dazed and with my scooter on top of me. I had cracked my head on a rock at the bottom. My head was bleeding and my right leg was extremely painful .Harmony licked and licked me trying to make me more aware and then barked and howled and barked some more until some other dog walkers appeared. She then ran to them and back to me constantly until they got to me. When the ambulance appeared Harmony was very keen to look after me and was trying to lick me better. As I was put in the ambulance Harmony howled and howled. Fortunately all I had was a gash in my head and bumps and bruises. I was extremely scared the next time I went out in my scooter but my lovely Harmony stuck to me like glue.
On a rare bad day Harmony stays by my side, never moving the whole time. Recently the day after one of these episodes I felt blue again. But, I had to take Harmony for her walk. An hour racing along the seaside with the wind in my hair with a joyful dog soon overcame all negativity. It is impossible to be depressed when Harmony is around. I am off the anti depressants and my pain medication has reduced. I am PROUD of her and love it when people ask me about her. I care for her and the whole family love her. Melissa communicates so well and chats with others who ask about Harmony. She asks for Harmony if she is feeling scared and recently Harmony came with us for Melissa’s immunisation as her support.
I have also had the confidence to go up Ben Nevis with Harmony to raise funds for Canine Partners. I didn’t initially make it to the top but I DID get up another Munro mountain. I am a proper Mum again. Life is good.
Here's a video showing the lead up to Sally's second attempt up Ben Nevis at 1’30” in.
To watch a video about Sally and Harmony, please click here
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