Meet Wilma, from Edinburgh

Posted 3 weeks ago in the Our partnerships category

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought a lot of new challenges for our partnerships, including Wilma and canine partner Belle.

Wilma was partnered with canine partner Belle in February 2019. This is her story:

I live with Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI), more commonly known as brittle bones, which affects my collagen and causes extreme fatigue. I have had over 300 cracks and fractures, but as it affects everything with collagen I have also had many debilitating connective tissue injuries and I bruise very easily. I can be severely injured just from picking things up, opening and closing doors, and reaching for items in my home or shops. My condition has caused more problems over the last 15 years so I have stopped doing many activities I used to love. I have always been hugely independent and would rather take far longer to do something than ask anyone for help.

Having lived with OI all my life, during my childhood my parents didn’t wrap me in cotton wool and encouraged me to try things. I have always loved being on or in water. Once I learnt to swim, initially as a way to build muscle to support and protect my bones, a swimming coach reckoned there was potential somewhere and, as a result, I trained hard, joined a swimming club and swam competitively for Scotland and Great Britain. I then added wheelchair racing as well as taking part in the Paralympics and European events. Due to demands from my career in teaching, I retired from competitive sport in my mid 20s but still enjoyed activities like canoeing and sailing. I then got involved in the Disability Movement, discovered the Social Model of Disability as opposed to the traditional ‘Medical Model’ and became a disability activist, all of which changed my perceptions of being a disabled person. I stopped ‘denying’ and trying to cover up that I had a disability and travelled widely, including to North America for my Churchill Travel Fellowship, looking at the education of children and young people with disabilities from an inclusion and rights perspective. I still campaign for our rights today. I work on the basis that while I may fracture, I heal, and being able to do activities rather than watching from the side-lines is a definite plus in my mind.

Life with Belle

As I’ve grown older, the growing impact of OI, along with severe complications from previous surgeries, allergic drug reactions causing peripheral neuropathy and Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, have made it increasingly difficult to do what to me seemed very basic things. I’ve had many injuries struggling to get clothes on and off, especially coats and trousers. I frequently drop things and the act of leaning to pick them up was a constant source of pain and injury. Changing the bed, taking washing through to the washing machine, loading and unloading it then hanging the washing up would exhaust me for the rest of the day, leaving me in severe pain. When I have to lie down on the sofa or in bed, moving to get up can be intensely painful or leave me stuck but with my extraordinary canine partner, Belle, many things are so much easier and safer for me. She is there in a flash to help me, her gorgeous amber eyes looking expectantly at me, often with her funny grin and tail wagging excitedly, letting me know: “I’m here for you mum, what next?”

Whether it’s bringing a ‘tuggy’ for us both to hold the ends of and her to gently pull on to allow me to slowly move into a position where I can get up, Belle standing perfectly still so I can rest my hand on her back to balance as I stand up to transfer from one place to another, bringing me my manual wheelchair if it’s out of reach, getting the shoe horn and my slippers from another room, bringing me the phone from elsewhere in the house, helping me change the bedding, pulling the duvet up once I’m in bed, and bringing me the post. Now that the days are getting warmer, she gets her brush and other grooming kit, puts it in her basket and carries them outside where we sit in the sun while she gets a good brush and we both relax.

Adapting to life during the Covid-19 pandemic

As I became aware early on during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic of what was happening elsewhere in the world but particularly in Italy, I made the decision to begin self-isolating at the beginning of March. I also decided at that stage that I had to stop the few people who helped me with things at home from coming, which has made things more difficult and hugely tiring. Although my type of OI and mild asthma doesn’t place me in the shielding group, I am undoubtedly at major risk from COVID-19 as my spine and ribs fracture easily – especially if I have a severe cough or sneeze. My asthma also becomes more of problem when I have a bad cold or flu.

I’ve become used to this way of reorganised and protected living and prefer not having to formally shield. Having spent many weeks and months in hospital or ‘trapped’ indoors due to fractures and other injuries throughout my life means, like many other disabled people, I have been able to draw on this to make life more bearable to cope with in these very different times and circumstances. In the last 10 years I also survived multiple severe infections in my femur bone and surrounding tissues, have watched nurses barrier nursing and doing everything for me when I’ve been seriously ill in hospital, and as soon as I started self isolating, I applied the principles and practices learned and observed at those times.

Thanks to wonderful neighbours in the courtyard where I live, self isolating (other than taking Belle for walks) has been easier than I could ever have imagined. While it was difficult to get a delivery slot from any supermarkets, many of my neighbours would let me know if they were going for their own shopping, so I’d give them a list of 3 or 4 necessities, which has been a godsend (although flour is still unobtainable!). I’ve had to stop my cleaner, for now, who did all of my household ‘chores’ and much more for me which means I’m having to very carefully and slowly do it all myself, trying to avoid injuring myself in the process and that extra work certainly causes additional aches and pains. Belle is a great help carrying dusters and polish in her basket from room to room and bringing me things.

Unexpectedly, and unbearably sadly since I started to write this piece, Brian, my brother, lost his wife, Lorraine, when she passed away in his arms suddenly on 18 May. He phoned me very shortly after to tell me and all I wanted to do was get in the car to go to be with him. Knowing that I couldn’t was horrendous and heartbreaking. I spent much of the rest of that day in tears and there have been many more since. Belle knew something was wrong and stayed very close. Having to care for her, take her out for walks and talk to her as well as family and friends is helping. Neighbours have remarked on how she stands across the front of my wheelchair and gently leans against my legs when I’m talking to them as if she is trying to protect me from more distress. She most definitely gives the best cuddles in this time of social distancing. Being able to hold her close while I can’t give my brother, nephews and their families physical hugs helps a little, but the heartache is still there.

Belle is my immediate world. I’m sure I would have found self isolating much harder emotionally and practically without Belle and my days would have been more unstructured. We are both missing the opportunities to meet up with friends, to be closer to people we meet when out for walks and dogs for her to play with.

Every task we do together reduces the risk of further fractures, injuries and fatigue. I definitely feel that I am retaining my independence for many years to come as a reality. I see us learning together, working hard, having fun, and continuing to be as much an active member of society as, I hope, I’ve always been. Canine Partners, the organisation, and everyone involved in it, is now a hugely important part of my everyday life. I want others to have the opportunities and experiences I have had since being partnered with Belle. I want the supporters, volunteers and staff members to know how much I value everything they do.

We need your support now, more than ever, to ensure that when the Covid-19 pandemic is over, we are still here and able to train amazing assistance dogs for people living with physical disabilities across the UK. Your support will help to make sure our 30th year is not our final year.

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