Finding my shadow

Posted by Elizabeth Forst in Life After Paralysis on March 25, 2019 # Mobility

I became completely paralyzed from the shoulders down in August 2014 from a freak swimming pool accident. The accident landed me into a wheelchair of which I will be sitting in for the remainder of my life. Since my accident, I have accomplished many new things as a quadriplegic including writing for the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, mentoring individuals with new spinal cord injuries, public speaking to both kids and adults and have tried to return to an independent lifestyle as much as possible.

Yet, there always feels like something is missing. Surrounded by challenges almost all of the time, I find myself often times struggling to find the light in this new extremely difficult life. Never having been married or had children, and with many friends having moved on in their own personal lives, I find myself quite lonely and looking for companionship. And thus my dream of having a service animal as my companion was born. My search began, almost 4 years ago to the day…yet every application turned into rejection with statements like "your level of disability is too high for us to work with you…" Or "because you can't use your hands to give a dog a treat, it is impossible for you to properly train and work with our service dogs". Wait lists for dogs are 3+ years, and buying my own dog utilizing a personalized trainer costs upwards of $30,000. It was demoralizing. My wish to have a furry companion was quickly diminishing. Frankly, I'd given up on the idea. I was starting to think that maybe I WAS too disabled to deserve a dog. In this is from the girl whose mantra is – anything is possible.

And low and behold, after four years, I stumbled across Canine Partners for the Rockies – a local, nonprofit organization with 17 years plus experience training and placing service animals with the local disability community. How had I not found them before? Clearly… this was serendipity. Maybe, just maybe, my last ditch effort to have my wish come true might become a reality.

After a few short months, and after many interviews in person, on the phone and at their training center, the answers that had historically been all "no's" started to turn into "yes's". Sure, there are a lot of challenges working with highly disabled quadriplegics such as myself, but their entire team was willing to take on the challenge, and so was I.

So… It is with great excitement, anticipation and hope that my life will be forever changed – as I know it will – with my new buddy, my new right-hand man, and my new… Shadow. Shadow's training has been going on for almost 2 1/2 years and the time has come for him to be placed, placed with his new best friend, me. Shadow's training has cost upwards of $25-$30,000 representing too many hours to count with his training team, dog handlers and host family. Canine Partners is funded mostly through individual donations, grants, foundations, and nonprofit fundraising, yet there does exist a personal financial responsibility of taking on Shadow which totals $9500. I have been saving for a service animal for quite some time, and so thus have personally saved $2000 over the last four years. This leaves me with the balance of $7500 of which I'm hoping to raise amongst my own family, friends, and supporters that wish to partake in this new journey with me. I know we can do it together.

My training with Shadow starts this Monday at the training center in Colorado. It will entail many early mornings of getting up in the dark so as to meet my new team and work all day learning verbal cues, making a strong bond with Shadow, cruising around town adventuring into stores, movie theaters, lunch and dinner spots, at the airport, gas stations, in and out of the van, traipsing around my neighborhood and in my apartment, you name it. We've got a laundry list of things to learn together. The training will last 2 to 2 and half weeks of intensive eight-hour days, and then our new journey together will begin just the two of us. My level of independence will soar I know and I will have so much more confidence being outside and in the local community without always needing a caregiver or personal assistant next to me as Shadow will be there right with me.

I am so excited about this next venture of my life. Here is to being a pioneer and being one of the few high-level quadriplegics in canine partner's history to ever receive a service animal like Shadow.

Anything is truly possible!