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FANTASTIC, uplifting, enjoyable story re: the canine-human bond

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from the Miami Herald...

Service dog forges friendship with paralyzed man

BY CARLOS FRIASTHE PALM BEACH POST

01/04/2015 3:22 AM

01/04/2015 3:22 AM


WEST PALM BEACH, FL. ---

Sounds of delight welcome Don Chester wherever he goes. And it usually has little to do with him.

A solid 10 seconds before anyone ever says hello to him — before they even notice him, really — adults turn on baby voices and fawn over the blonde at his side.

Pollyanna is a real "chick magnet," Chester's wife said. So much so that Chester's wife started requiring her husband — only half-jokingly — to wear his wedding ring whenever he leaves the house with her.

It's been 10 years since he started this affair with his platinum-blond assistant. But everyone seems willing to overlook the indiscretion of another female invited into the Chesters' home because of what she's meant to all their lives.

It was 10 years ago this month that Don Chester, 68, left his home for an early morning run and didn't return for six months.

When he finally did, Pollyanna came with him. And she has never left.

Chester was hit by a car on Christmas Eve of 2004 as he trained for a triathlon. His spinal cord was severed and he was paralyzed from the chest down. An electric wheelchair permanently replaced his running shoes. He could still use his arms but lost the dexterity in his hands.

His wife, Sally, a lifelong nurse, became his rock. His employer, St. Mary's Medical Center, where he has worked as an administrator and community liaison since 1973, not only saved his life when he was rushed there after the accident but accommodated his surroundings so he could return to work two years later.

But even with their support, Chester feared he would never be independent again.

"At first, I thought I'd prefer to die of thirst than to ask someone to open a bottle of water for me," Chester said.

Then along came Polly.

Sally researched everything her newly disabled husband would need, and at the top of the list was a service dog.

And so, in September 2005, Pollyanna — her litter of Labrador retriever pups was named for Disney characters — came to the Chesters.

She is what was missing.

Pollyanna, an almost-white yellow Lab, became part companion, part tool. She has been trained to turn on lights, open and close doors, go for help, warn Don of obstacles and, above all, retrieve: The remote. A dropped house key (fitted with a tassel she can grab with her mouth).

The Chesters had been dog owners — dog lovers — before Polly. They always had at least two rescues at home.

But not until Polly did they fully realize what she would mean to someone like Don — fiercely independent, highly competitive, infinitely social — adapting to life with a handicap.

On an average Wednesday morning nearly 10 years to the date since he was paralyzed, Chester wheels down the corridors of St. Mary's hospital, where he has worked for 43 years, with Polly at his side.

He's lucky, he says. Uses the actual word.

Not everyone who is paralyzed can return to the very job they were doing before the accident.

"A roofer would have to be trained into a whole new profession," Chester said.

And how many return to a job at a hospital, where every doorway and elevator, every ramp and bathroom, is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act?

He rarely thinks about the actual accident. The woman who hit him was never charged with a crime. Don was told she "did everything she was supposed to do": stopped immediately, called for help and stayed until the ambulance arrived. He has never asked her name or sought her out. He only knows she was on her way to work in Palm Beach that morning.

"To me, it was an accident. That's all it was," he says. "I don't blame anybody."

And he has never sought out the medical records, which are kept at St. Mary's, and he has told the records clerks to ask him, "Are you sure you want to see these?" if he ever asks.

"It's good not to have memories of that, because I'm sure it wasn't a pleasant time," he said.

He'd rather focus on where he is now, which, at the moment, is in the midst of giddy catcalling.

"Oh, look at her. Just look at her!" one of Chester's co-workers, Michele Ritter, says. "She's the sweetest." says another.

And another, "Oh, she's so awesome.!"

Co-workers who see Don and Polly every single day are loving on the attention hound like they haven't seen her in months.

Polly has turned her body to lean against Ritter's legs, staring up with those always-soulful Lab eyes and — is that a smile? Because it sure looks like a dog smile.

"Polly? Hey Pol? Come, Polly. Pol, c'mon." Chester is calling with a half-smile. She's not going anywhere until after a few more belly rubs.

Polly has been taught a command — "make a friend" — that Chester has scarcely had to use.

"You have to have no ego," he jokes. "Pretty much everybody will say hello to her first."

Back in his office, Don is seated at the U-shaped desk adapted for his use.

His wheelchair glides up to and under it where his hands can float over the keyboard. He wears a pair of cuffs over his hands with a pointer attached to each palm that he uses to tap away at the keyboard, swiftly like a hunt-and-pecker.

He prefers to do as much as he can to keep himself active, from typing instead of using the slick dictation system with a microphone, to walking Polly instead of asking an office assistant to take her out twice a day.

Still, the microphone is a big part of his life. Using a program called Dragon Dictation, he can reply to emails and using his iPhone's functionality can send texts. He even has it set to flash an LED light when he receives a call or text. He keeps it face-down in his lap and defuses the blinking by telling people not to mind his flashing crotch.

Rather than be frustrated at not being able to do things the way he used to, Don has adapted things around him to his new condition. Because his hands are paralyzed into a permanent karate-chop stiffness, he and Sally have improvised gadgets.

There's a plastic hook stuck to the back of his iPhone case that he can loop a finger through to pick up. The mail-order cuffs with the pointers can also be fitted with a pen.

"My handwriting was bad before," he jokes.

Another set of cuffs is fitted with a fork and spoon.

"We don't let him have knives too often," Sally jokes.

His method for getting things done has changed, but he gets them done all the same.

Learning to accept help, though, was the biggest adjustment.

"I knew I wasn't going to be able to be with him 100 percent of the time," Sally said.

Now, in the mornings, his assistant, Lissette Tamargo, pours him water and keeps his cup filled throughout the day. After the accident, one of the nerves that controls his ability to sweat was permanently damaged so he has to remain hydrated and be careful of overheating.

Sally found cups with handles wide enough so he can slip his hands through with a top and a straw.

Tamargo opens his eyeglass case in the mornings and polishes his lenses and puts them back at the end of the day.

His day-to-day job, as the hospital's government relations liaison, is unchanged. Most of the time, Polly lies under his desk, dozing unseen, like George Costanza.

"She's invisible until she's necessary," St. Mary's CEO Davide Carbone said after his daily morning meeting in a packed conference room with Don, Polly and the rest of the administrative staff.

Chester's smile and good nature lure you in, his sense of humor breaking down the barriers that often exist between the handicapped and those who aren't.

What set Chester apart — and brought out everyone from the community, including such politicians as Lois Frankel and Mark Foley, to donate to a fund to retrofit his modest home south of Forest Hill Boulevard — is his personality.

He remembers people's names, loves to engage them with stories. In a place like the hospital, which can be cold, sterile, impersonal, it's a ray of sunshine.

Chester knows everyone from the head pastor to the newest cashier. He knows every hallway and what's behind every storage closet, down to the location of the transfer switch to alternate to generator power in case of an outage, from his time as the physical plant manager.

But for a time, before Polly, all he had worked for was in jeopardy.

He learned the hard way that others have a hard time relating to people with disabilities. They look away. Give them a wide berth in hallways. Stand awkwardly in elevators.

Polly changed all that.

New Horizons Service Dogs provided her after months of interviews and several meetings with Don, Sally and their dogs at the time. Now, she fits in perfectly with their four-legged family, dogs Comet, Shadow and JP.

"She came running in the house and I remember thinking she was the most beautiful dog I'd ever seen," Don said.

Whenever he wheels along with his blonde bombshell at his side, he's immediately the center of attention. Well, maybe just outside the center, since Polly loves the spotlight.

She erases the distance. People notice the dog instead of the wheelchair.

"You bring Polly with you, and that's the icebreaker," Chester said. "People see her, and they feel good."

Out in a main corridor for her morning constitutional, Polly is hard at work being Don's emissary. She wears her green service dog vest and official St. Mary's identification badge, complete with a very photogenic picture.

Don leads her through the emergency room entrance for a walk outside and a stop along a patch of grass. He whispers "busy-busy" which is her signal to go to the bathroom. (Consequently, he has to be careful when talking about being busy in his office. Polly is very literal and he can't even whisper her command to bark without fearing he'll startle everyone in the administrative wing.)

On her way back inside, the trauma nurses are waiting for her. This is part of their daily stop. The nurses keep a bowl full of treats in the employee lounge and nurse Lynne McInerney already has a handful in her right lab coat pocket.

"Who's a good girl? She's a good girl, a good girl, yes she is." McInerney coos and pops treat after treat into Polly like coins into a furry arcade machine.

McInerney scratches Polly until her leg quivers. (Polly's, not McInerney's, but almost.)

Chester uses these opportunities to learn what's going on with the staff — to take the pulse of the place — which is also part of his job here.

And Polly has made it possible for him to continue in that role.

Chester knows a wheelchair-bound life before and after Polly. And that's why he and his wife have fostered more than 14 service dogs, to help acclimate them before they go on to host families.

It's why he meets with patients, on his own, after they have been permanently disabled and shows them the possibilities even at his age.

It's why he still exercises as much as he can, working out his upper body with a hand exercise bike and riding a hand cycle on weekends to stay in shape.

"It's boring as hehll to be inside. God, I live in South Florida!" he said. "I don't want to be stuck indoors."

This restless determination, it's still what gets him out of bed in the morning — with the help of a blonde who's always ready for his attention.

“Green is the prime color of the world, and that from which its loveliness arises.”
(Pedro Calderon de la Barca)
Respected Contributor
Posts: 2,647
Registered: ‎03-09-2010

Re: FANTASTIC, uplifting, enjoyable story re: the canine-human bond

Polly-

Esteemed Contributor
Posts: 6,490
Registered: ‎06-22-2010

Re: FANTASTIC, uplifting, enjoyable story re: the canine-human bond

Wish we could see his precious platinum assistant! Thanks for this great article!

Don't cry for a man who's left you--the next one may fall for your smile.
-- Mae West
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Esteemed Contributor
Posts: 7,804
Registered: ‎03-09-2010

Re: FANTASTIC, uplifting, enjoyable story re: the canine-human bond

One of the reasons I donate regularly to Warrior Canine Connection. That unconditional love and loyalty can't be beat. What an uplifting thread!