Stronger Together

Doctors tell lupus patients to avoid stress, but stress didn’t avoid her. That’s where a white and fluffy pooch came in.

By Jackie Surls, Austin, Texas

As appeared in

What 28-year-old wants to admit her mom was right? Not me. And definitely not about this.

It had only been a week since my husband, Joey, and I brought our new puppy, Gunner, home to our apartment in Virginia, and already I felt like I was in over my head. I sat up stiffly in bed, my joints on fire from a flare-up of lupus.

Ding, ding, ding! To housebreak Gunner, we’d hung a bell on the front door that he could ring when he needed to go out. He caught on fast. Too fast. Once he figured out that it meant going for a walk, he rang the bell all the time.

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“No, Gunner,” I groaned. “I just took you out.”

At the sound of his name, he came trotting over to the bed. “Not now, boy,” I said. “I’ve got to rest.”

Gunner looked at me expectantly, his tail wagging. Trying to ignore the ache in my shoulders, I scooped him up into bed with me. My fingers brushed against his bright red collar. I sighed.

At first that collar had been a symbol of hopes being fulfilled. Now it was a glaring reminder: This is too much for you!

You can probably guess who warned me about that.

Maybe a year earlier I’d called my mom in Texas to tell her Joey and I planned to get a dog when I finished my Ph.D. in molecular and cellular biology.

“Forget it, Jackie,” she said. “You’re already worn out from working so hard on your thesis. You need to take time off after graduation to rest, not run around after a dog. With your lupus, you have to avoid stress.”

Mom would know. She has systemic lupus too. So does my sister. It’s a chronic autoimmune disease that attacks healthy tissue–skin, joints, organs. Symptoms flare and recede with frustrating unpredictability.

That last year of grad school I was in a constant flare, with extreme fatigue that sent me into a “lupus fog,” when it was almost impossible to concentrate. Fever. Aching muscles. Throbbing joints, especially my knees.

When I got home, I gave in to exhaustion and crashed for 12- to 14-hour stretches. “Hibernation mode,” Joey called it.

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He was so patient and accepting of my physical limitations. Me, not so much. I felt like I was sleeping my life away. My doctors advised me to leave school. Even Mom, who’d instilled in us the importance of education, pleaded with me to stop until I was better.

No way. I was determined to be the first in our family to earn a doctorate. God wouldn’t have given me this passion for science if he didn’t want me to pursue it, right? I prayed for the strength to finish.

There was something else that kept me going. My family had a fluffy white Chow when I was growing up. I’d wanted another dog ever since I left home. When Joey and I were first married, we didn’t have enough money–or time, with him working long hours as a software engineer and me in grad school.

But he saw how I was struggling. “I know things are really hard for you right now. I want to give you something to look forward to,” he said one night. “When you graduate, we’ll get a dog.”

That promise was the boost I needed. I put all my energy–what was left of it–into my research, and in May 2012 I handed in my thesis. Mom came up from Texas for my graduation.

At my celebration dinner, Joey presented me with a beautifully wrapped package about the size of a shoebox. I like shoes as much as the next girl, but what about his promise? Joey looked so eager that I hid my disappointment. I tore open the box. A red collar and leash!

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I threw my arms around Joey.

The next step: research. Joey and I pored over books and websites. I wanted a small dog, friendly and intelligent, that didn’t require tons of exercise. I analyzed traits like they were data in my lab and reached a conclusion: West Highland white terrier was the breed for us.

The fact that Westies were white and fluffy, like my childhood dog, sealed the deal. We went to see a litter. A tiny male with perky ears jumped on me, then tugged at Joey’s jeans. No matter how many times we pulled away to look at the other puppies, he followed. Small yet determined...kind of like me.

“Looks like he’s chosen us,” Joey said, laughing.

Before bed that first night, we put Gunner in his crate and turned out the lights. He didn’t make a peep. “I think we got the perfect puppy,” I whispered.

A cry jolted me awake the next morning. I glanced at the clock. Five-thirty! I needed way more sleep, but Joey had already left for work, so it was up to me. Besides, we had to get Gunner house-trained. Once I got a job, I wouldn’t be home so much. Slowly I got up and made my way to the crate. He whined softly.

I opened the crate and clipped on his leash. “C’mon, little guy.” I trudged down the stairs with Gunner and let him take care of business. “Good boy,” I said, yawning. Back up the stairs. By the time we got to the top, my knees were throbbing. At least I can go back to sleep now, I thought.

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Gunner had other ideas. He grabbed one of his toys and dropped it at my feet.

“Okay, okay, I’m awake,” I said, tossing the toy across the room. Playing fetch zapped my strength. I could barely get up from the couch when Joey got home from work.

“Don’t worry,” Joey said. “He’ll settle down.”

Really? Gunner was a bundle of energy. And I was the sickest I’d ever been. The lupus flare hadn’t let up, and my puppy alarm clock wasn’t letting me get the rest I desperately needed.

Gunner wriggled in my arms. I stroked his velvety ears. “God, I know you brought this puppy into my life,” I said. “I want to be the mom he deserves. But I need your strength again.”

Gunner looked at me with his big, dark eyes as if he understood, and snuggled against me. We fell asleep with me holding him like a teddy bear.

Ding, ding, ding!

The bell again. This time I felt a surge of energy. I took Gunner out to his spot, then right back in, so he’d know the bell was for bathroom breaks, not playtime. Soon he got the hang of it.

One afternoon a neighbor came up to us. “Can I pet your puppy?” she said.

“Of course.” But Gunner ducked behind my legs. Strange. Westies aren’t known to be shy.

The next day I brought some treats on our walk. Our neighbor bent down to pet Gunner. Again he backed up. “Would you mind giving him a biscuit?” I asked. “I’m trying to help him get over his shyness.”

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She held the treat out. That broke the ice. Gunner took it and wagged his tail.

Next we met a guy in a golf cart. The maintenance man. I explained about Gunner’s shyness. “Hi there,” he said to my puppy, waving a treat. “We’re going to be pals.” Gunner ate the treat and even let the man pet him.

We ventured farther on our walks, and before long it seemed we’d met everyone in the apartment complex. The maintenance man was Gunner’s favorite. He’d sit on the guy’s lap and go for a ride in the golf cart, ears perked.

One evening Joey, Gunner and I went for a walk together. Every time a neighbor approached, Gunner trotted ahead to greet them. “Wow, look at that,” I said to Joey. “He’s really gotten over his shyness.”

“I’m looking at something else,” Joey said. “You. Do you realize we’ve been walking for almost a mile?”

“Really?” My knees weren’t aching. Come to think of it, I wasn’t tired, either. In fact, I felt better than I had in months. My lupus flare was finally subsiding. Could it be that helping Gunner had helped me too? I couldn’t wait to call Mom.

Nine months after Gunner became part of our family, he met Mom. I landed a job on a biotech research-and-development team in Texas, not far from where she lives. “Now I see why you wanted this dog,” she said. “You need Gunner as much as he needs you.”

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You know what? I have to admit, she’s right about that.

 

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