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A helpful dog in a difficult time

Posted by Ben Terris  July 7, 2009 09:54 AM

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By Ben Terris
Town Correspondent

Every morning when Newton South student Kelsey Swan, 16, wakes up, she has to lie in bed and pop her joints back into place. As she does this, her dog Mack turns on the lights.

This is just one of the many ways Swan gets help from her canine friend. Swan suffers from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, connective tissue disorder that leaves her tendons and ligaments defective and makes getting around difficult.

“I’m in pain all the time,” Swan said. “I feel like my legs are made of lead, that my hips are grinding together, and when I try to lift my leg its like I have no muscle, just a bone.”

While the disorder wreaks internal havoc, there is no visible manifestation, a fact that Swan struggled with in her early years living in Connecticut.

“Invisibility works against me,” she said. “Teachers and nurses back in Connecticut said I was making it up because I don’t show it. Well, what teenager wants to walk around with gloomy look on face? Just because I didn’t want the disorder to define me, didn’t mean it wasn’t a part of me.”

The disease leaves Swan in constant pain that fluctuates due to the weather. In the winter months her joints get stiff and are more likely to dislocate, and in the humidity of summer she “has to wear every brace she owns because [her] joints get so floppy.”

Up until about four weeks ago, whenever Swan wanted to get around, she had to rely on her mom.

Fortunately for her, NEADS, a non-profit that provides dog assistance to deaf and disabled Americans, gave Swan Mack. A previous NEADS recipient already raised the $9,500 it cost for the Smooth-Coated Collie, and now Swan is being asked to raise money for the next.

The Swan family, made up of Kelsey and her mother Kimberly, believe that raising money for the next recipient is a true honor, for they know first hand how Mack helps out in innumerable ways.

“He lets me know when I should sit down, he gives me a sense of balance that I am otherwise completely lacking,” Swan said. “Anything I drop he picks up, I could drop a quarter and he’d pick it up, and of course he is there for my safety.”

According to Swan, if she falls, Mack knows how to “alert bark” until someone comes to help, and can even retrieve a cell phone for her.

Swan’s mother, Kimberly, said that getting Mack three weeks ago has been a high point on an otherwise difficult number of years.

“I used to live an upper middle-class life on a waterfront property in Connecticut,” Kimberly said. “But now, after a terrible divorce, and not being able to hold a job I’m living on $800 a month and food stamps.”

After moving to Newton, Kimberly was able to secure a job teaching in Newton, but said that with so much going on with her daughter, she wasn’t able to commit to work. Kimberly said that being a single mother of a disabled child has proven to be a nearly impossible task.

“I wanted to be able to handle it, and when I couldn’t I thought I was failing my kid, failing the school failing everything, she said. “It was like being hit by a freight train… But with Mack, I really feel like we were blessed.”

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6 comments so far...
  1. I hope so much that more good things will come your way. We take so much for granted, health, our jobs and our family. When pieces shatter it can wreck havoc. I hope that Kimberly, the mom will find a workable solution so she will be able to work again. Is there any way that you can start a fundraiser to help raise money for the new dog?

    Posted by j. July 7, 09 10:43 PM
  1. Kelsey, Hope you see this message! I met you, your mom and Mack at a cafe in Acton in April. I was thrilled to see this article and find out that you and Mack ended up together! Sounds like Mack is a god-send for you and your mom. And perhaps someday soon, i will have the privilege of helping train the next Mack! Best, Jill :)

    Posted by Jill July 8, 09 12:40 AM
  1. Kelsey, you are an inspirational young woman and I wish you all the best. It's nice to hear a companion animal has been able to allow you to live and strive independently. Best wishes to you and your family.

    Posted by Michelle July 8, 09 12:43 AM
  1. I am thrilled you have your Service dog -- I also have EDS and am now training my 3rd puppy. I am so sorry your family was not aware that most Service Dog organizations provide their dogs at no cost to the recipient for the fully trained dog!.

    I hope your family will join the Ehlers Danlos National Foundatiom at where you can get the most current information and research. We have offered 2 articles on Service Dogs with EDSrs in the last 18 months.

    Best of luck to you!

    Posted by Susan Jenkins July 8, 09 12:59 PM
  1. I raise Service Dog puppies for NEADS and I remember meeting Mack when he was just 8 weeks old! I was surprised to see this article on him. Looks like he has found his place in life:)

    Posted by Heather July 8, 09 07:10 PM
  1. I noticed that Mack has a Gentle Leader on his muzzle. This indicates to me that he has not been fully trained. A service dog should walk at heel without any restraining devices. A collie-sized dog could hurt a person with EDS if he is not fully trained. (I know; I have EDS and an active shepherd.) I know how much joy a dog can bring, but please insist that his training is complete.

    Posted by chekechu July 12, 09 10:52 PM