Laurie and Gilbert, Summer 2020 Graduates

February 4, 2021

My life has been dedicated to serving others. With 22+ years as a volunteer firefighter, EMT, rope rescue technician, rescue diver, and a mother and grandmother, I was always on the go. In 2011 all that came to a screeching halt and I was the one who needed to be saved. I had an exceedingly rare heart attack which was caused by a spasm in my coronary arteries. During this coronary spasm, your arteries restrict or spasm on and off, cutting off the blood supply to your heart muscle (ischemia). It can happen while you are at rest and even if you don’t have serious coronary artery disease. They call this a Coronary Artery Spasm to the heart. From that moment on, I knew my life would never be the same.

After being discharged from the hospital, fear set in and started to take over my life. My physical health had totally changed. I began having syncope episodes on a daily basis. On many days when I stood up or tried to get out of bed, I didn’t feel well and would lay back down for fear of passing out. This started to consume me and I was getting depressed. Being the strong-willed person I always was, I made the decision that this was not going to take me down so I returned to work as a full-time federal government worker. After returning to work, I had many days that I feared passing out or even having another heart attack, which soon overwhelmed me, and I found myself leaving the office early to get home where I felt safe. The fear paralyzed the way I lived life.

I went from cardiologist to cardiologist in hopes of finding out why this rare heart attack happened and how I could prevent another. After not being satisfied with what the doctors were saying, I finally started to feel a bit relieved when I was introduced to a cardiologist who was the father of a career firefighter at the firehouse where I volunteered. After having a brief conversation with him, in the kitchen of the firehouse, he told me to make an appointment with his office. After many months of tests, different medications, and hospital stays, it was determined that I now needed to see an electrophysiologist, also referred to as a cardiac electrophysiologist, arrhythmia specialist or EP (a doctor with a specialization in abnormal heart rhythms).

Eventually, I was diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) and Neurocardiogenic Syncope (NCS), two conditions that affect blood flow and cause dramatic changes to heart rate and blood pressure which results in fainting, dizziness, and a plethora of many other symptoms. This was a hard diagnosis to accept because at that moment I knew that I would no longer ride on the firetruck or work in the back of an ambulance. It was at this point I needed to turn my sadness into something positive so I started talking to first responders and educating them about POTS and NCS which helped me accept my disability. At one point someone asked if I ever looked into getting a service dog, mentioning that they had heard about dogs that could help with POTS. Being a dog lover, I quickly started doing the research and that is where my journey with Canine Partners for Life (CPL) began.

With the support of my doctors I applied to CPL. I waited four long years before being matched with my service dog. At times, the wait would get extremely difficult, but with the encouragement of many individuals of the CPL family I learned to trust the process. In the end, the wait was worth it because I was matched with Gilbert, a big, handsome, lovable, black Labrador.

On the first day of Team Training I made a choice that in order for my partnership to be successful, I needed to put my full trust in my new partner, Gilbert. I left my rollator (a walker I used for balance) at home because I was going to trust Gilbert’s support. On that day, Gilbert was acting odd during a break and the trainers were convinced he was alerting. Although I didn’t feel anything, I trusted Gilbert and sat down. The next day, during a trip to Walmart, I didn’t feel well and Gilbert alerted me right away. I was laid out on the floor of Walmart and started crying because in that moment I knew with Gilbert by my side, I could finally feel safe again.

Before Gilbert, my life was full of fear. With Gilbert, I have security. I fully trust in his alerts. When he tells me I need to rest, I listen, but, I also listen when he isn’t alerting. If he indicates that I am fine, even if I feel something, I trust him and move on with my day because I know he won’t let me down. I may not be able to do any of the stuff I loved so much, and that is still really hard, but I am hoping to find new adventures with Gilbert and just being able to walk down the street is a new adventure.

From the very first night together, every night when Gilbert and I lie down for bed, we cuddle together and I look at Gilbert and say, “I love you my sweet boy and thank you.”