When you have a child with special needs, you’re always looking for ways to help make his or her life a little easier. That’s what my wife, Lori, and I have strived to do for much of the past 14 years.
Our son, William, was just 15 months old when he was diagnosed with brain cancer. During the next year, William was hospitalized dozens of times, underwent countless surgeries and medical procedures, and dealt with a year of chemotherapy treatments.
The great news is that William is now 15 and has been cancer-free for almost 14 years.
While we count our blessings, winning that cancer battle did not come without a cost. William deals with learning disabilities; is deaf in one ear and severely hard of hearing in the other; and suffers from seizures, along with a host of other medical concerns.
Nonetheless, William is a well-rounded, happy young man who loves spending time with his family, riding his bike, playing video games and participating in sports, including bowling and swimming. He has won multiple medals in the Special Olympics.
Still, William is very aware of many of his medical conditions, especially his seizures. When he was about 7, he had a really bad seizure. William told us he was scared he would die from a seizure, and thereafter was afraid to sleep alone in his room. We tried a lot of different methods to help him get over his fear, but none of them worked.
That’s when one of his doctors suggested we get William a service dog.
We were skeptical at first because all we knew about service dogs was that they were used to assist blind people or to help police sniff for drugs, bombs or bodies. However, at that point we were willing to try anything.
So after a lot of research, we reached out to the Ohio-based nonprofit 4 Paws for Ability. After filling out an extensive online application, the organization deemed William an excellent candidate for a seizure alert dog. These dogs are trained to recognize the scent people give when they are about to have a seizure, as well as trained to alert people that their person needs help. Seizure alert dogs also serve as comfort animals when their person is dealing with a seizure.
It took more than a year to complete the process of obtaining a service dog. This included raising about $13,000 to help pay for the training. Then, in December of 2012, we had to spend two weeks in Ohio for our individualized training with William’s new dog, a golden retriever named Asha.
While there, we met other families who also felt a service animal would help their children. Some dogs were for seizures, while other dogs assisted children with everything from diabetes to cerebral palsy.
The process of getting Asha was long and arduous, but it was completely worth it. William and Asha have been the best of friends for the past six years. Thanks to Asha, William went right back to his room the day we got back home.
Asha also has been William’s constant companion at school and just about everywhere he goes, from the mall to restaurants, to Orioles games and even plane rides and trips to Disney World.
Asha has alerted us to many seizures over the years. But the biggest alert from her came on the morning of Jan. 19, 2017, when she started howling uncontrollably in William’s room. William had spiked a 107-degree temperature and was unconscious and barely breathing. Asha’s nose was even bleeding slightly from her rubbing so hard to try and wake up William.
Those few extra minutes helped save William’s life. He eventually spent a week in a pediatric intensive care unit after being diagnosed with meningitis.
When we first considered getting a service dog, we were worried it might be a challenge to take a dog everywhere. But instead, the opposite was true. Asha gave William a sense of independence he did not have before, and she has been an invaluable member of our family.
We can’t imagine our world without Asha in it and are so grateful to have her in our lives.
Ron Snyder is a Baltimore-based freelance writer and the author of “Wrestling’s New Golden Age: How Independent Promotions Have Revolutionized One of America’s Favorite Sports” (Sports Publishing).