Fiona Howard just wants to walk.
Using her forearm crutches, she hikes forward, her legs in custom braces and a Great Dane named Elvis by her side in case she needs his help. Howard is determined to walk the Weston trail.
Before making her way over a big rock, she looks back at me and casually says, “If I get the coronavirus, I will go to the ICU, and I will probably die.”
For the 21-year-old Howard, this is a fact of life. Born with an unspecified genetic disease, she battles complicated chronic illnesses including cardiac and digestive issues. She also has dystonia, a movement disorder that causes her muscles to involuntarily contract and twist.
Her family sent her from London to Boston Children’s Hospital for an 8-week treatment in 2016 after doctors in England said she might not live to see her 18th birthday. That short-term plan became ongoing and evolving health care. Howard has been here ever since. When she’s not undergoing treatment, the Northeastern junior is studying as a pre-med and psychology major, or doing research in the cardiology department at Children’s as an intern.
“I’m always in the hospital," she says. “When I get a cold or a virus, it slows my digestive system down. My body doesn’t have the reserve to get me back on track. So when normal people get a cold, they are sick for a few days and then they rebound. In January, I got a little virus and ended up in the ICU. Even though coronavirus is a big deal for everyone, I have to be careful all of the time. I am aware of getting sick 365 days a year.”
So while the world panics, she walks forward. In an era of social distancing, life is normal for her. She hikes the trail with her best friend, and partner-in-quarantine, Alyssa Berkovitz.
“You’re always thinking ‘Am I next?’,” Berkovitz, 28, of Brighton, says of coronavirus. “I am worried more about her than myself but we’re making the most of this situation which is what we always do.”
They are fearless. They know what it means to live every day like it might be the last.
“It’s something I am not allowing the coronavirus or my own health to take away from me,” Howard says of hiking together. “Rather than spiraling down into this depression, I am not going to hide. I am going to do what’s good for my body. I know I can’t get sick. But so many things have been taken away from me. Walking is very helpful for my mind, my body, my spirit, everything.”
A big part of the walks are about Howard preparing for the Eversource Walk for Boston Children’s Hospital in June. She’s determined to complete the 6-mile trek along the Charles River. Last year, she could barely make 2. And it won’t be long before Howard has to undergo two years of orthopedic surgeries that include breaking and pinning of her legs. This is her time to walk freely before the next surgical journey. So they train.
‘Even though coronavirus is a big deal for everyone, I have to be careful all of the time. I am aware of getting sick 365 days a year.’
Together, Berkovitz and Howard walk about a mile on a private trail in Weston, just them and their service dogs, Elvis and Kernel, both Great Danes.
The statuesque canines are what brought the besties together two years ago.
“I literally ran into Fiona on the street,” Berkovitz says. “It stops you in your tracks when you see another person with a Great Dane service dog. She was this skinny, tall girl and I was like ‘Who is that?’ ”
It was a sweet but brief meeting outside of Children’s. Sometimes Berkovitz, with Kernel by her side, visits patients there. He’s not just her service dog. He’s kind of a celebrity, with 109,000 Instagram fans and counting.
Howard became one of those followers. Berkovitz followed back. Through Instagram, they set up a play date for the dogs that turned into sushi lunches, calling each other all hours of the night, and when possible, hikes with Elvis and Kernel.
For Howard, Elvis is her partner. Donated to her two years ago by the Service Dog Project in Ipswich, Elvis helps her get up if she falls. He helps her walk if she needs to lean on his strength. He can detect when her blood sugar is low or her heart rate is off. He’s a lifeline.
“Before I had him, I relied on crutches or a wheelchair,” Howard says. “As we got to know each other, we bonded as a team.”
Now that team includes Berkovitz and Kernel.
After her mom died in 2008, Berkovitz developed post-traumatic stress disorder. She wanted a service dog for many years — not just for herself, but also to help others. But it wasn’t until 2016 that she got Kernel, right after a bad breakup put her in a dark place.
“He keeps me stable,” she says. “We are very in step with each other. He changed my mental health a lot, just having him here. One of his tasks is called ground. It means if I am in a low position, to comfort me.”
He helps her, yes. But together, Berkovitz and Kernel spread cheer. Like the time they visited the Beverly School for the Deaf, or when they visit sick friends, and every time he hangs with Elvis.
Service dogs are working dogs. But the time they spend together is time they get to do a little bit of both.
“I don’t think I know a friendship as close as Elvis and Kernel,” Howard says. “Those two are ridiculous. Elvis, when he sees Kernel, he gets so excited inside as soon as I give him the OK to say ‘hi’ he bounds across the sidewalk. He loves Kernel.”
Even if you’re 6 feet apart, having dogs run, jump, and play all around you makes you feel close. They don’t know what coronavirus is. They help keep you in the present, reminded of the life you still have.
As much as the trails are about the dogs having fun together and Howard gaining the endurance to walk 6 miles, it’s also part of work life for Berkovitz.
As a dog walker, she has about 30 different dogs a week she hikes the trails with in small groups. Having the other dogs around are a treat for Elvis and Kernel, too.
But Howard and Elvis don’t come along for every dog hike. They aim for twice a week.
“It’s the best and it’s giving me the sense of normalcy that I need right now,” Berkovitz says. “We can be together, doing what we do best together. We are usually in the hospital, in the ICU, and unable to be around other people anyways. This is just another weird scenario for us and a really special treat in a hard time of darkness.”
It’s more than that. The two young women and Great Danes have become a small but great family.
“It’s very important to me, especially being in Boston and away from what was originally my home," Howard says of her friendship with Berkovitz. "Walking has always been a big goal because I was always told I couldn’t do it. So I appreciate having Alyssa support that. And our dogs being very good friends helps.”
But if you ask Berkovitz, Howard is just as key in her life. She lovingly calls her “Lil Sis.”
“I believe in her,” Berkovitz says. “She’s had a few close calls with death, particularly a few months ago. It was scary. You have no idea how important this person is to me, how much she has been there for me. This is not just a take relationship. She gives way more to me than I give her in so many ways. She’s a wonderful friend and one of the best people in my life. I would have been so stupid to have just gone our separate ways after we met.”
So together, they walk. For as long and as far as this life will allow.