Service Dogs Inc

Lean on Me

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Sometimes in our lives
We all have pain, we all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow

Lean on me when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on

Bill Withers

Anxiety Reducer

For most of Terrie Heemsbergen’s life, she has been the one people have leaned on. In her years as a nurse in oncology and hospice, and now as a nurse educator, Terrie has held a lot of hands, helping individuals and families through a debilitating illness, a long and difficult treatment, or a final goodbye.

It wasn’t until her diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, a little over eight years ago, that Terrie needed anyone to lean on herself. After multiple falls and increased fear about them happening again, Terrie decided to apply for a Service Dog with SDI.

Ember, a beautiful black lab mix, came into Terrie’s life a year and a half ago. Trained as a mobility dog, Ember’s primary duties are to open doors and retrieve items for Terrie. But Ember’s greatest gift is helping Terrie manage anxiety.

“I initially needed Ember for my gait,” Terrie explains. “I have Parkinson’s and a lot of balance problems. I know it’s a progressive disease and will keep getting worse. I didn’t get Ember to lean on, but I wanted her to help me with my walking. She stays in a heel position next to me and helps me with my gait and navigating the stairs.”

Over the years, Terrie’s Parkinson’s symptoms and exhaustion have gotten worse, and her anxiety levels have greatly increased. When Terrie is away from home, without her husband, she often gets extremely fatigued.

Terrie explains, “Sometimes when I am out, I get so tired. That scares me. I worry about how I will get home. Will I need pull the car over and rest? With Ember by my side, I feel this immense sense of comfort and peace. She’s someone I can trust to be with me all the time. Just having her with me greatly reduces my anxiety and helps me live my life.”

Fearless Protector

In addition to greatly improving Terrie’s quality of living, Ember may have even saved Terrie’s life. Literally.

As Terrie recalls, “Ember and I were out for an early morning walk. She was on leash; I would never have her loose by herself.  It was late spring, very warm, about 7:30 am. All of a sudden, she started to bark, which she rarely does, and I went closer to see what was wrong.”

Terrie continues with a chuckle, ‘I said to her, “Ember, what are you barking at? There’s nothing there!’ But Ember kept barking, and backing up, and it struck me as odd. I was thinking what is the matter? This is just so unlike her.”

“Ember was close to foundation of the house, barking at the dirt and cut grass.  I could not see anything at first. I grabbed her leash, trying to get a better look. Ember pulled back and would not let me get any closer.”

“Ember was insistent. She kept barking until I saw the Copperhead. I immediately pulled her away and got my husband. It was a young snake, about 18″ long, and in my experience, they are more venomous.   She protected me again, and instinctively knew not to get too close. That certainly wasn’t something she was trained to do.”

Four-legged Mind Reader

Like all the dogs at SDI, who are so in tune to their handlers, Ember has a kind of sixth sense when it comes to Terrie. She is able to read Terrie’s moods, sense how she is feeling, and meet her needs, often without being given a command.

Once, when Ember had only been with Terrie for a few months, Terrie was in a closet and fell.

“I didn’t get hurt, but I couldn’t get up, and my husband wasn’t home. I called Ember. She plowed through all the junk that had fallen on the floor around me, and we looked at each other, and I thought, well, we’re going to have to figure this out.”

Terrie laughs, “It wasn’t pretty. But we got out of that mess together.”

Together is the operative word because Terrie and Ember are virtually inseparable.   When Terrie goes to work at Temple College, Ember does too. Terrie says that Ember gets excited when she puts on her Service Dog vest. Ember knows that when she wears her vest, she is going to work.

Ember loves people and brings joy and comfort to everyone she meets. Terrie is active locally and nationally in the Parkinson’s community, and she enjoys sharing Ember with other Parkinson’s patients.

A Love Like No Other

Animals are Terrie’s passion. Living on over 30 acres on a ranch in southcentral Texas, Terrie has raised cattle and horses, had dogs and cats, but never experienced the kind of love she has with Ember.

“It’s hard to explain. Only people with a service animal would understand. I’ve never had a bond like this.”

This year Terrie and her husband are planning another cruise to Alaska. Once again, Ember will be making the voyage. Terrie is planning other trips too. She loves to travel and won’t let Parkinson’s disease stand in her way. Regardless of the destination, Terrie will have Ember to lean on wherever she goes.


~ By Janis Gioia