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An Unshakable Bond: Service Dog Makes Life Easier for Student Who Suffered Traumatic Injury

working-dogConnie Lucas and Balboa

They're inseparable, Connie Lucas and Balboa, her 6-year-old boxer.

Together on the Old Dominion University campus for the first time this semester, Lucas and Balboa are making friends every day. Lucas is taking classes as a junior in industrial and organizational psychology. Balboa loyally accompanies her everywhere, ever watchful.

The dog has proven a magnet for classmates and curiosity-seekers on campus. But intuitively, Balboa knows what he needs to do to protect his human companion.

"That dog is a genius," Lucas says.

In two years together, they've formed an unshakable bond. It's a bond that has helped Lucas recover from an unspeakable tragedy, and make her a shining example of the progress made in neuroscience research worldwide. Daily interaction with Lucas and Balboa can also be instructive for the ODU campus community about the role of service animals.

* * *

A small-town kid from Grundy, Va., Lucas grew up to have a fabulous adulthood. Working as an environmental consultant for the coal industry, the self-made entrepreneur couldn't have felt more blessed. A loving husband. An incredibly close family. A daughter who was a talented equestrian.

Lucas worried, perhaps superstitiously, about the new millennium, thinking that something random and uncontrollable could throw her life out of balance. But as Easter of 2000 approached, she figured that worry was unfounded.

Instead, chaos.

Driving back to their rural Kentucky home from their daughter's show-jumping meet in Indiana over Easter weekend, the truck containing the entire Lucas family was hit broadside by a van driven across the median at full speed by a reckless 19-year-old.

Six people were killed in the crash, including Lucas' husband and father. Her mother never fully recovered, and died a short time later. Lucas was in a coma for months, leaving an 11-year-old daughter to make funeral arrangements and enroll herself in boarding school. Lucas suffered a traumatic brain injury and required a complete facial reconstruction.

"You see this," Lucas says, running her hand in front of a very real-looking face. "This is all metal."

Now she's here, in her first semester at ODU. Her recovery from the injury will never fully be complete, either physically or emotionally. But thanks to Balboa, her loyal service animal, Lucas can mingle with students less than half her age, and feel like a kid again.

"This is totally a bucket-list thing for me, finishing college," she says.

Lucas likens her recovery from the tragic accident - she had to relearn how to speak, how to walk, how to remember - to being dropped from a helicopter into dense jungle. "You know you're trying to get somewhere, but you don't have a compass, and you've lost your machete," she says.

Attending college in person wouldn't have been possible had her neurologist and a veterinarian not matched up Lucas with Balboa. The now-6-year-old dog had been dropped off at a local shelter in southwestern Virginia, and was initially thought to be a candidate for police work. However, his unique personality made him a better match as a care dog, and Lucas is perpetually thankful they were brought together. "He can sense what I need, always," she says.

The brain injury affects Lucas' vision, and makes it difficult for her to look at a computer screen for more than a few minutes at a time.

Balboa can detect when a seizure is about to occur, which can happen to Lucas at any time. He'll react protectively when someone approaches suddenly. Balboa also simply keeps tabs on his human companion. "One time, I was meeting with Kate Broderick (faculty and community liaison in ODU's Office of Educational Accessibility) and he nudged me every once in a while, just making sure I was still there and didn't need help," Lucas said.

Broderick said Balboa is one of four service animals currently in use on the ODU campus, helping open educational opportunities for brain trauma injury victims. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection, approximately 1.7 million head injuries occur annually in the United States. The need for service animals is likely to accelerate nationwide.

"With the increase in service animals on campus, we feel there is a need to raise awareness regarding appropriate behavior when encountering these teams," Broderick said. Suggestions such as speaking to the person rather than the dog, and refraining from distracting the dog in any way (thus exposing the person to greater risk of injury), are among the guidelines listed on the website for the Office of Educational Accessibility at http://ww2.studentaffairs.odu.edu/educationalaccessibility/ServiceAnimals.shtml.

"Connie has made remarkable progress and has been assisted by many people and agencies along her journey. Her ultimate goals are to graduate from Old Dominion University and re-enter the work environment," Broderick said.

Lucas says she's incredibly thankful for the assistance of ODU's Office of Educational Accessibility, the Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services, and Brain Injury Services of Southwest Virginia for their ongoing support and assistance.

One of Lucas' first classes at ODU was for a course on public speaking. She bonded instantly with her instructor, Linda Revolinsky, and felt bad when a group assignment led to Balboa reacting defensively by a sudden, yet completely coincidental, movement by one of her young classmates.

Revolinsky has had experience with working dogs before, so she knows how important it is to educate colleagues so that they understand the needs of students like Lucas. "Professors need to be able to educate their own students about disabilities of various sorts so that there is more awareness about special needs of fellow classmates," she says.

Lucas' recovery from the traumatic incident has been incredible. Turning 50 in 2012, she made the decision to move away from home again, this time to Norfolk, where she didn't know anyone. Her daughter is now 24, living in Washington, D.C. School is only the first of a series of plans Lucas has for the next chapter of her life.

A pronounced scar runs from Lucas' forehead down onto the bridge of her nose. She was offered a chance to have a plastic surgeon make that disappear, but has resisted. "It's my Purple Heart," she says.

Lucas' injuries made the impact of losing a husband, a father and a mother truly sink in only years later. But her infectious, sunny disposition betrays none of the tragedy that befell her 13 years ago. It's because, armed with a sense of purpose and perspective, and fortified by the support of a four-legged friend, Lucas relies on this mantra to guide her to better days:

"If you can press through the tragedy, you can find your silver lining."