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A perfect partnership

 

Fiona Airey, 49, from Somerset was matched with Canine Partners assistance dog Verlin in 2014. She tells us how he has changed her life and given her the confidence to pursue her dreams

 

 

Fiona Airey, 49, was always aware that her body could do things other people’s couldn’t. “From childhood, I was extremely bendy and double-jointed – like someone on Britain’s Got Talent who can fold themselves up and fit inside a suitcase. I was training to be a ballet dancer, so at the time it seemed great.”

By the age of 12, Fiona was regularly experiencing aches and pains in her spine and hips. “I spoke to a few doctors, but they put it down to my ballet. It was constant spine pain, though, and didn’t go away with the physiotherapy and chiropractor appointments I started having throughout my teens.”

In her early 20s, Fiona stepped off a pavement and experienced pain that left her unable to walk. “I was taken to hospital where they sent me for an MRI. Shockingly, this showed my spine had several prolapsed discs, which they put down to me being so flexible and doing so much training.”

At 23, she had surgery to remove part of the discs and some of the bone in her spine. “I was worried about the operation – my mum had a spine operation in her 40s that left her in huge pain and unable to work – but I knew I had to do something. Then, after the surgery, things seemed to be fine.”

Over the next few years Fiona’s pain unfortunately returned and her joints also started to dislocate regularly. “By 2001, I had started a career in teaching and was very nervous about walking around the school – or anywhere with lots of people – for fear of being bumped into and hurt. I would walk next to a wall or with someone like my sister next to me, as I was so concerned my shoulder would dislocate if it was knocked.”

Fiona and her GP realised there was a bigger problem, so she was referred to a professor in London in 2010 who diagnosed her with Ehlers- Danlos syndromes. This is a genetic group of conditions that affects the connective tissues of the body that strengthen and provide support and flexibility to the skin, tendons, ligaments, blood vessels, bones and internal organs. “All the symptoms I had came together into one condition and I understood what had been happening to me. But while the diagnosis made sense of everything, it was also frustrating. You want the doctors to be pain. “Electrodes were placed between my spinal cord and vertebrae to stimulate the nerves and scramble the pain messages to my brain. It took the edge off the pain, but unfortunately, didn’t take it away. I was still struggling every day.

“As I looked fine, people thought I was OK, and at work they didn’t understand or implement the changes they needed to make for me. I felt like everything I had worked hard for in my life and career was at risk. It was a very dark time.”

In 2012, Fiona came across Canine Partners. “I knew I couldn’t carry on with my world getting smaller and smaller, so I gave them a call. They were incredibly helpful and reassuring and gave me hope that things could get better.”

 

“Verlin offers me the right help at just the right time – whether that is bringing my bed socks in the morning or nudging me to get up and move when my pain levels get too high”

 

Eighteen months later, Fiona got the call to say she had been matched with a dog. “I was at school in a class and had just had a really tough day, but as I was told there was no cure or fix. The doctors said they could keep replacing discs in my spine with rods, but eventually every level of my spine would degenerate because it was so flexible and I would end up with a single rod up and down my spine and unable to move.

“My GP said that after being given such a diagnosis, people often went through a grieving process and that’s exactly how it was. It took a long time to come to terms with the news.” Instead of more surgery, Fiona was given a spinal cord stimulator to help with the pain. “Electrodes were placed between my spinal cord and vertebrae to stimulate the nerves and scramble the pain messages to my brain. It took the edge off the pain, but unfortunately, didn’t take it away. I was still struggling every day.

“As I looked fine, people thought I was OK, and at work they didn’t understand or implement the changes they needed to make for me. I felt like everything I had worked hard for in my life and career was at risk. It was a very dark time.”

In 2012, Fiona came across Canine Partners. “I knew I couldn’t carry on with my world getting smaller and smaller, so I gave them a call. They were incredibly helpful and reassuring and gave me hope that things could get better.”

Eighteen months later, Fiona got the call to say she had been matched with a dog. “I was at school in a class and had just had a really tough day, but as I talked to them every single stress of the day just disappeared. My colleague said I was almost jumping up and down with excitement!”

 

“the whole world had just been shrinking into darkness, but this happy dog full of love pushed every single black cloud away”

 

Fiona met her canine partner Verlin, a black Labrador, at a Canine Partners training centre. The connection was instant. “He threw himself in my lap straight away. The trainer watched us work together and agreed it was a great match. I couldn’t wait to take him home.”

 

 

Since then, Fiona and Verlin’s bond has grown stronger. “Having Verlin in my life has changed everything. He knows my routine and offers me the right help at just the right time – whether it’s bringing me my bed socks in the morning, as I have poor circulation and get very cold; picking things up for me when I drop stuff, as my fingers work their way out of the joints; fetching me things from the other side of the room; opening doors so my wrists don’t have to twist to pull the handle down; or helping me out of my clothes so I don’t have to wriggle and maybe dislocate my shoulder. He knows when my pain levels get too high and will poke me as if to say, ‘You need to move as you’ve sat too long.’ “I live alone so it’s really invaluable having Verlin there to support me, and it’s given my family – including my son, who’s gone off to university – confidence and reassurance that they don’t have to worry about me, as they know if there’s any incident Verlin will go and get the phone and will look after me.”

Verlin has given Fiona the confidence to pursue her goals, too. “I completed my National Professional Qualification for Head Teachers recently and started work as a head teacher. With Verlin there, there is nothing holding me back from being as successful or ambitious as I want to be. Now, if I drop something in the classroom Verlin will pick it up, and when I’m out in the corridors or the playground in a very busy environment with 420 children, Verlin gives me space and a safe bubble to walk in.

“People now just see me as me. They see the professional that I am and that I happen to come with an assistance dog. It shows everyone at the school – whether it’s a child, parent or colleague – that anyone can do what they want to do. There might just have to be an adaptation for them to do it.

“Before, the whole world had just been shrinking into darkness, but this happy dog full of love pushed every single black cloud away. He opened everything up for me and gave me a future. I now see that as being exceptionally busy and wide open, and it’s all thanks to this fantastic, special dog. Verlin is running ahead, clearing the path for me. Nothing can stand in our way.”

 

CANINE PARTNERS

TRAINING ASSISTANCE DOGS FOR A BRIGHTER FUTURE

Fundraising target £100,000

 

 

Canine Partners provides training to assistance dogs to allow them to support people with a variety of physical disabilities – including MS, cerebral palsy or spinal injury – with tasks such as getting the clothes out of the washing machine, retrieving the post, opening doors or helping with undressing.

Puppies initially attend foundation training to work on socialisation and basic skills before doing 15 weeks of advanced training. Once matched, their partner is invited on a two-week training course at one of the two training centres – the Midlands or Southern Centre – where the dogs undertake bespoke training with the needs of their specific partner in mind. They experience a variety of situations together while under the supervision of a trainer. The partner will then have ongoing support from the aftercare team.

The money raised in the Candis Big Give will allow the charity to continue training assistance dogs to help as many physically disabled people as possible in the coming years, giving hope to those on the charity’s waiting list. The practical day-to-day support provided by a canine partner means that individuals can become less reliant on friends, family members and carers.

The dogs also provide psychological, emotional and social benefits, so that people are empowered to get back out in their community, return to work and explore new opportunities. For more information, visit caninepartners.org.uk

 

 

 

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