Since the Boston Marathon bombings, Jessica Kensky and her husband, Patrick Downes, have been grappling with the enormity of all they have lost.
The attack cost each a leg, casting the young couple into a nightmarish world of trauma and recovery and shattering their plan to move to the West Coast, where Downes had accepted a pre-doctoral internship in clinical psychology.
But late last month, the flow of loss was offset a bit when the couple gained something: a young, black Labrador retriever named Rescue.
“There was so much loss for us — our legs, our independence, our plans, my ability to work, [Patrick’s] fellowship, our apartment. You felt like you were being stripped of so many things,” said Kensky, 32, an oncology nurse. “Rescue was the first time we felt like something was being added back.”
Kensky got Rescue through the Pawsitively Strong fund, which was created by NEADS/Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans to provide assistance animals free to bombing victims. The pairing was the first in what the Princeton nonprofit hopes will become a wider effort. A few other victims of the attack have inquired about service dogs, but none have yet applied for one.
“Like everybody in the country, but more specifically in the Boston area, we were devastated by what happened at the Boston Marathon and our immediate thought was, what can we do to help?” said Lisa Brown, NEADS manager of communications.
The group, which trains and places service dogs with disabled children and adults throughout the nation, decided to help by doing what it does best. NEADS was started in 1976 to train dogs to alert hearing-impaired owners to important sounds and expanded to prepare animals to assist those with other disabilities. So far, it has paired more than 1,400 animals with clients.
NEADS dogs may go to autistic children, providing them comfort and smoothing the way for social interactions with other children. Others are placed with adults dealing with various physical disabilities, retrieving items for them, opening doors, and more. Some NEADS dogs head to classrooms and hospitals to do therapy work.
The group doesn’t receive any public funding, depending instead on private donations. One of its programs lets donors name a puppy for a $1,400 gift, and Rescue got his name from the Worcester Firefighters Association, which raised money to honor the memory of a colleague, Jon Davies, who died two years ago in a building collapse.
“With the help of a NEADS assistance dog, our clients are able to do things that they could not do before — or they regain a degree of independence that they had lost through illness or injury,” said Gerry DeRoche, NEADS chief executive.
The group’s service dogs are primarily Labrador and golden retrievers, while its hearing dogs are often smaller, mixed breeds that the organization rescues from shelters.
About 95 percent of its puppies are trained by prison inmates. Currently there are about 75 NEADS puppies in 10 New England prisons. Dogs typically begin their training when they are 8 weeks old and are ready to start their careers before they’re 18 months old. Volunteers take the dogs home on weekends to expose them to life outside prison and further socialize them.
Rescue was trained at the John J. Moran Medium Security Facility in Cranston, R.I. I know this because I was the volunteer who took Rescue home on weekends from the time he was 3 months old.
That Rescue was chosen to be the first dog to be placed through the Pawsitively Strong fund was a coincidence — but a happy one for me as I knew from my years of experience as a volunteer that the 17-month-old dog, with his strong sense of focus and gentle, polite nature, would do his job well.
Besides their regular clients, NEADS has reached out to other specific groups, which gave them the idea for how they might help the Marathon bombing victims.
Because the injuries from the bombing are similar to those suffered by service members in Iraq and Afghanistan, NEADS decided to create a special fund modeled after its program, Canines for Combat Veterans. NEADS has trained and given more than 55 service dogs to wounded military veterans since founding the program in 2006.
Group leaders launched the Pawsitively Strong fund in early May and soon after Boston Duck Tours and Brownstone Insurance of Norwell stepped up as major donors. The first infusion of cash came from a Westwood couple who were in the spectator stands across from the first bomb when it exploded. The couple, who asked to remain anonymous, sought out NEADS because they were aware of the difference service dogs can make, having considered one for their disabled son.
After NEADS secured funding, it reached out to the state attorney general’s office to distribute information about the fund and identify potential recipients.
“I know what a difference a dog can make in your life. For so many of the survivors of the bombing, they’re dealing with so much, the post-traumatic stress, the financial issues, learning how to cope as they’ve lost a leg or more,” said Attorney General Martha Coakley.
Though the Pawsitively Strong fund was put in place just weeks after the bombings, NEADS didn’t expect an applicant right away. Clients who undergo amputations usually wait a few years before deciding they’re ready for an assistance dog —
For Kensky, the decision was simple. She had grown up with dogs, and she and her husband wanted one. But her long days in the bone-marrow transplant unit at Massachusetts General Hospital and her husband’s studies made that impractical.
Less than a month after the bombings, a hospital social worker who knew of Kensky’s love for dogs arranged for NEADS official Cathy Zemaitis to visit Boston Medical Center with Currahee, her black Lab, who has been trained as a service dog. Though sedated, Kensky brightened when she saw the dog. And when Zemaitis demonstrated Currahee’s skills, having him retrieve items and flip the light switch on and off, Kensky peppered her with questions.
“Even though she was sedated and almost in and out of sleep, she was so interested in Currahee, and she had such good questions about service dogs,” Zemaitis remembered.
Soon after, Kensky asked her sister for help filling out an application for a dog, hoping to get started immediately. But there was a problem. Kensky couldn’t answer the questions about her home. She and her husband wouldn’t be going back to their Cambridge apartment because it wasn’t handicapped accessible. They didn’t know where they would be living. She submitted the application anyway. Soon after, a NEADS client coordinator called Kensky to suggest she wait until leaving the hospital before going further.
“The day I was discharged, I called her,” Kensky says.
There was no question in the couple’s minds that this was the right move. Zemaitis brought Currahee for another visit in early June. By then both Jessica and Patrick had been discharged from the hospitals where each was treated and were reunited at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. Jessica invited the dog on the bed with her, and Patrick joined them there. He marveled at the change in his wife.
“For us to be in that incredibly dark, despairing place and to see the brightness in her face when the dog was there . . . if something was going to bring her that joy we needed to have that,” he said. Downes, 30, said he may apply for his own service dog in the future to do double duty as a therapy animal for his patients.
After leaving Spaulding, the couple found an apartment in Medford. NEADS officials told Kensky that the wait for a service dog generally is six weeks to a year.
The process of matching a NEADS dog to a client is part science, part instinct. Staff members get together and compare notes on the applicants’ disabilities and personalities, the dogs’ temperaments and sizes, and those unquantifiable qualities that can make or break a partnership.
Eight weeks later, Kensky got the call she was waiting for.
“We questioned Jessica pretty closely to make sure she was ready,’’ said Brown. “From our experience with wounded veterans we know that sometimes it can take a while before clients are really emotionally ready. And we decided she was.’’
In late September, Kensky moved onto the NEADS campus to begin learning how to work with her new dog, a process that usually takes a couple of weeks. When she saw him for the first time, she almost didn’t recognize the feeling.
“Happiness,’’ she said. “It’s been a really long, dark road with so many ups and downs. This was the first time I felt pure happiness. There wasn’t anything else. Just happiness.”
Now back home in Medford, Rescue adapts his pace to Kensky’s whether she’s in the wheelchair or walking unassisted with her prosthetic leg. He’s with her when she leaves the apartment, and he follows her from room to room, keeping her in sight in case she needs his help.
And for the first time since April when this nurse, who had tended seriously ill patients, woke up herself in a hospital bed, Kensky was once again a caregiver.
“Aside from the confidence he’s given me, the independence, he’s changed the mood in the apartment,” Kensky said. “I have a routine now. I have someone to take care of . . . I have someone to think about instead of just dwelling on myself. We’ve only had him a week and it’s like he’s always been with us.”