Health and wellness touch everyone’s life differently. This is one person’s story.
I have spent the past several years of my life battling chronic illnesses, including Lyme disease and its coinfections, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), gastroparesis, epilepsy, and neuroendocrine cancer.
These conditions can be debilitating and make everyday life very difficult. But in recent years, my service dog, Bowie, has helped mitigate my disabilities. She has allowed me to live a more normal life.
I am currently hospitalized, and as I lie here writing this in my hospital bed with Bowie at my feet, I reflect on the countless occasions in which she has truly saved my life. Bowie is a 2-year-old blue heeler. Trained as a medical alert dog, she helps me alleviate my disabilities in numerous ways. She has given me independence and security, and she has given my husband peace of mind. At times, this 40-pound dog has quite literally held my life in her paws.
Not too long after we got Bowie as a puppy, we noticed she was picking up on the intricacies of my failing health. This led us to work with a service dog trainer to turn those instincts into a practical skillset of assistance — both abilities to alert me to episodes of ill health, such as a high heart rate or epileptic activity, and assistance in tasks such as opening doors or applying pressure on my chest after a seizure.
A service dog’s training is never over. Bowie is continually learning new tasks that help support my disabilities. My chronic illnesses can cause extreme pain and fatigue, so she helps me with daily activities that I can’t do on my own. She is learning to retrieve objects that I might need, like medicine or water, and to pick up objects that I drop. She is also learning to help me find important things I misplace due to brain fog, like my wallet or phone.
Bowie helps me manage every condition
Most of my chronic illnesses stem from my late-stage Lyme disease. Lyme disease is a multiple systemic infectious disease syndrome — this means it can affect every organ in your body. Because I went so long before being diagnosed, the bacteria was able to infiltrate many of my organs and cause permanent damage, leaving me with several chronic illnesses.
One of those is POTS, which is caused by a dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system. This condition causes my heart rate to skyrocket and my blood pressure to plummet when I stand up, or anytime I’m upright. This can cause me to faint and potentially injure myself. Even when I don’t faint, this effect makes me experience extreme fatigue because my heart and body are working so hard, leaving me too tired to get up from the couch on most days.
Now that I have Bowie, I can avoid these kinds of episodes. When my heart rate gets too high or my blood pressure too low, Bowie will alert me by nudging my knee or hand, and I sit down until my vitals go back to normal. She also applies pressure to my legs or elevates them by lying under them, to help regulate normal blood flow (because POTS can cause blood to pool in your legs).
I also have a seizure disorder. Since I get auras before a seizure, I don’t need Bowie to alert me that one is about to happen. But she does have seizure response tasks that help me after they’re over. After I have a seizure, I’m usually confused and anxious. Bowie will do deep pressure therapy (DPT) on my chest, which helps ground me and calm me down, using her weight to help mitigate against the symptoms.
Bringing awareness to invisible illnesses
I am very vocal about my chronic illness on and . It’s my hope that by sharing my journey with Bowie, together we can help raise awareness about my different chronic illnesses and the great help that service dogs can provide.
Many of my illnesses are invisible illnesses, which means that on some days I look like a perfectly healthy 25-year-old, even though I am suffering terribly inside. This can lead to people not taking my illnesses seriously, and people thinking I don’t actually need a service dog.
It is my hope that by sharing my story far and wide, I can break down this stigma and make it easier for others with invisible illnesses to share their stories, as well as consider whether a service dog might be able to help them, too. Bowie has changed my life for the better — maybe a dog can do the same for you!
Aubrey Winkie is an advocate for those living with chronic illness as she battles several illnesses herself. She’s passionate about raising awareness about her illnesses and service dogs. Through her account and her daily , she tries to illustrate how even when faced with hardship, one can still find the positive and live a happy life.