She’s Got a Friend
by Janis Gioia
A Life-Changing Diagnosis: Debilitating and Depressing
When Shannon Martin talked to me about her life with her retired service dog, Noble, I thought of James Taylor’s 1971 classic song, “You’ve Got a Friend.” And while Taylor was most likely not singing about service dogs, it’s fair to say that Noble and all of Service Dogs, Inc.’s service dogs have brightened a lot of darkest nights.
Just ask Shannon, 52, of Houston, Texas. For the past ten years Noble has been her faithful and constant companion, seeing her through a deep depression that followed several devastating medical diagnoses. Noble did what no one else, not even her husband and sons could do: lead her back into joy and a life worth living. Now in his golden years, Noble is retired, but he has never stopped loving Shannon and being the best friend she could ever have.
“When Noble came into my life, it was a very dark time,” Shannon says. “I had been super busy. I was a busy wife and mother. I worked as a hospital chaplain. It was always go-go-go. Then, one Thanksgiving, I wasn’t feeling well. I thought it was the stress of all the cooking and preparations. But it was just the beginning of a lot of serious health problems, and my life was never quite the same.”
Shannon’s initial diagnosis was spinal stenosis. She recalls, “I had a nodule removed on my Achilles heel and blood work revealed that I had Rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Being an autoimmune disease, RA opened the door to so many other illness for me. After the RA diagnosis, I became sick with Graves’ disease, fibromyalgia, facet joint syndrome and sjoren’s syndrome.
“Some people have RA and their life goes on pretty much the same. For others, like me, it’s a life-changing diagnosis. I have lived in constant, chronic pain for the past 15 years. I continued working four years after I became ill, but the pain and the side effects from the medications targeting the RA, including chemotherapy, made continuing in my career impossible.”
Talking with Shannon is like talking to an angel. She has a gentle, peaceful energy, and a soft voice that reminds me of honey on a biscuit. You want to pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and enjoy time in her presence.
Many people have enjoyed being in Shannon’s company, especially those she’s comforted in her work as a hospital chaplain. But when Shannon needed comforting, it didn’t seem like anyone could reach her through the pain and sadness.
She says, “After I became ill, I went into this deep depression. I wondered why God had left me…Here I was a chaplain, working at church, the hospital, helping others, doing His work, and then I got sick. I couldn’t understand it. I began staying in bed all day long, not leaving my bedroom.”
“My husband and sons tried everything to help me, but nothing was working. They were gone a lot, at work and at school. I was lonely and anxious about being home alone, so we began considering a service dog.”
The SDI Experience: Support and Kindness
“Finding a one proved a bit of a challenge. So many places I talked to were so business-like and not very friendly. When I found Service Dogs, Inc., (at the time Texas Hearing and Service Dogs) they were amazing. So kind and caring. It was like I was calling a friend. Most service dog organizations don’t offer free follow-up training at your home, but SDI does, and what a difference that made for my success.”
When Shannon was paired with Noble, it truly was a match made in heaven. “When I looked into Noble’s eyes, for the very first time, I knew that we belonged together. Here was this beautiful, kind gentle dog, given to me, free of charge by this unbelievable nonprofit organization.”
“I knew I had the responsibility, the obligation, to feed him, train him, take care of him. I was a partner with SDI, and now it was my job to fully participate in this venture and give back to this dog and this nonprofit. The things they (SDI) do for people, the way they change people’s lives, it is truly amazing”
Shannon credits Noble, and SDI, with slowly bringing her out of her depression. “Being active with Noble, and having this wonderful dog love me, made all the difference in the world. He got me up and out of bed and into the world again.”
A Pebble in a Pond: Touching and Saving Lives
With her many illnesses and doctor’s appointments, Shannon and Noble often found themselves in waiting rooms. “There are a lot of hurting people in hospitals and waiting rooms. In the past ten years, I have had over 30 operations. With my illness, God put me in places where people really need a chaplain…someone to comfort them and hear that God loves them.”
“Noble and I could encourage, inspire and comfort others in need. And for many years, we did. I was always amazed by the number of people blessed by Noble, and those I could help because he was with me.”
Today Noble is retired. He still helps Shannon around the house, but he tires quickly and doesn’t perform his duties outside of her home.
Shannon explains, “He is always by my side and is quick to retrieve things for me, open a door or a drawer, but when he puts on his vest, he changes his stance. It’s as if he knows he’s working. He stands a little taller and goes into a higher alert mode.” Shannon continues, “He still acts like a puppy and he’s never grumpy or forgetting his commands, but he is older now, and I don’t want to put him through the rigors of being a working dog anymore.”
“SDI has offered me another service dog. I understand that Noble would help to train the new dog, and the new dog would learn from him, but I don’t want Noble to feel replaced. We still have this incredible bond, and I never want him to feel like he’s the second dog, seeing another dog taking his place.”
There really is no dog who could take Noble’s place in Shannon’s life or her heart. If Noble, a 75-pound yellow lab, were a person, he might be a king. Like his name, he is regal. Majestic. Seeing him wear a robe and a crown and carrying a sceptre would not be a stretch.
There seems to be a higher power at work, one that guides SDI to find and rescue dogs that become heroes in so many people’s lives. When people donate to SDI they may not realize how they save a dog’s life, transform a person’s life and help individuals and families go from barely surviving to thriving. Like tossing a pebble in a pond, every dollar given to SDI has a ripple effect, touching lives in more ways than anyone can imagine.
Shannon says that because of Noble she found her faith again. She is peaceful. Content. Fulfilled. Shannon enjoys sharing God’s word with others and spending time with her family, preferably having a good old Texas barbeque. With Noble by her side, of course, because slow-cooked ribs and smoked brisket taste better when you’re with your very best friend.