Stronger Together

Stronger Together

Would lupus keep her from having a dog? Not if Gunner had anything to say about it.

Jackie Surls and Gunner

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.

“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.

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!

Like this article? Sign up for our Angels on Earth newsletter, and get more stories like this delivered directly to your inbox