Keeping my eye on the prize By Jeannette Poling :: Jamul, California

Reflecting on a personal happiness

Canine Agility has always been fun and also amazing to me. My dogs run on a course with me, following verbal commands because they choose to, and it is fun for them, and they seem to enjoy it. They run, jump and bark, some of their favorite things. They are connected to me by the bond of mutual respect and love. My dogs don’t have to run, they are not on a leash or line. I can’t make them run and be my partner, they choose to do it, and it is a wondrous thing. We go to the start line, and I remove their leash and it is their choice to be my partner. I am so blessed. And these thoughts are why the thought of losing the ability to share this wonderous activity with my dogs, because of my catastrophic injury, was so devastating to me.

March 2022: Our dogs CH Natalie, CH Rory, CH Gabi, Josh and in front Baby Layla

On Sunday October 29, 2023, Rory and I made it to the top! We have been on this difficult journey together. It has been 18 months and 2 weeks since I had my catastrophic fall on April 15, 2022 when I broke my knee cap in three places, tore ligaments, nerves and muscles in my leg, and knocked back my 4 top front teeth and fractured my upper right jaw, along with 49 stitches in my lips and face! It took me about 2 weeks to understand the hard journey I was on. It was so difficult to accept such devastation to my body from simply tripping and falling on the asphalt next to my car. For the past 18 months I have persevered to get my life back. One of the main parts of my life is defined by all of the wonderful dog performance sports I participate in with my 5 collies, who are wonderful companions. I had to get back to running Rory and Natalie in agility.

October 2023: Our return to agility. Rory comes out of the tunnel. (Photo by Heidi Wallin)

My orthopedic sports surgeon was doubtful that I would be able run again (walk and stairs eventually, run, very doubtful) due to the significant extent of the damage to my left leg and because of my age (72) when I fell. I showed him videos of our trials from the past. He said that I had a tremendous mountain to climb. But he knew what my goal was and he told me it would be at least 18 months. He was right on the months and weeks required! He made advanced physical therapy available to me through his medical reports. He stood by my side and at age 42, he once told me, “I feel like you are my mom.” I have gone to physical therapy 2 or 3 times a week since mid-June 2022. I was in a wheelchair until September and then a walker for October and November. I also lost 35 pounds due to the pain in my mouth and nerve pain in my leg. My husband, Tom, took care of me. I was bedridden for 8 weeks, with my leg in an immobilizer raised on pillows with an ice machine. My surgeon put screws and wires in to hold my knee cap together. The damage to the tendons, ligaments and nerves was not as easy to repair. I had 4 surgeries over 12 weeks to repair the damage to my front teeth and fractured jaw. Initially, I had 37 stitches on my lip and face and 12 inside my mouth. I lost those 35 pounds from being on a liquid diet. I lived mostly on “Ensure Protein Drinks” for 12 weeks. I am also a Type 2 Diabetic which just added more to the fun. I lost most of my sense of smell and taste from the multiple oral surgeries, from the anesthesia in the roof of my mouth, those senses have not returned. My dentist was a miracle worker. I did not lose any of my teeth, but 18 months later I still have nerve pain in those 4 teeth.

June 2022: Jeannette and Natalie

As the weeks passed I never lost my dream of getting back to agility. And while I don’t think I ever wrote this on Facebook or told anyone, I not only wanted to get back to agility, but I wanted to get back to the level where Rory and I could win titles, and he could win placements. My Rory is MBISS GCH & CT Chelsea Here Comes the Sun, VCD1 CD BN TDX VST MXP MJP CGC HIC and his daughter is Natalie, CH & CT Chelsea Kissed by the Sun, BN TDX VST OA OAJ CGC HIC. They had more fun days ahead, they were young, just 5 and 3 when I was injured. I had to recover my health.

I desperately wanted to be able to show them again and have fun, and yet here I was going from being bedridden to a wheelchair. I was not happy. I don’t think I was depressed, but I was so extremely frustrated and very unhappy. I never thought, “Why me?” but I constantly thought “When will this be over??” I just tried to keep my eye on the prize: running with my dogs, not just leash walking, but running, or at least trotting. I went to physical therapy as soon as my doctor ordered it. I went in a wheelchair and was put on one of those big padded tables and the physical therapist moved my leg doing “slides.” That was not fun. Eventually as the weeks passed, I was able to stand for a minute or two. I practiced balance exercises and I was able to walk a bit with a walker with a support belt around my waist that the therapist held onto to keep me from falling, a far cry from doing a “rear cross” when running with Rory in agility.

In mid-September, 5 months after my accident, I was well enough and stable enough in a walker for Tom to take me to the park to meet Gayle [Kaye]. We brought Layla who was 11 months old. I could not walk a dog but I was able to go on my first dog activity. Tom walked Layla and Gayle brought her Whitney, Layla’s grandma. I had my brace and my walker. I stood with Layla for a “photo op picture.”

September 2022: My first outing with Layla. I could not walk her, My husband Tom did, but I did walk on the sidewalk with my walker.

As the weeks passed my PT gave me a walking protocol to help with my recovery and for building endurance and balance. I was able to walk both Rory and Gabi for a bit, and I knew if I needed to, I could just drop the leash. They respond totally to voice commands. They are such sweet and devoted souls. Six months had now passed. What is just surreal for me is that this was the first time Rory or Gabi had been in the car, and off our property for a walk since April 15. Can you imagine that these two lovely dogs had not been out for 25 weeks? They use to go several places every week, and then it all stopped. It’s just bizarre that this was our life. Another surreal fact: I had not driven a car, or even sat in the front seat of a vehicle in 25 weeks. I doubt few people can meet that awful claim. Anyway, Rory and Gabi and Whitney took it all in stride, easy to walk with, not overly impressed, but happy to be out and get treats from Gayle. I kept my eye on the prize.

(L) October 2022: Walking with Rory a short distance at the park :: (R) November 2022: More walking practice with Rory

The weeks passed and I continued my PT. By November I did not need the walker anymore and so I just wore the “immobilizer” brace which now had the knee stabilizer unlocked and I used a cane. I still was not able to drive and had to ride in the backseat of the van so my left leg could rest between the two front seats. I never gave up the dream of being able to do activities with my dogs: I kept my eye on the prize.

August 2022: Tom Poling with all the dogs: (L-R) CH Gabi, CH Rory, CH Natalie, Patsy Kaye (houseguest), Josh, and Layla in front

My Layla was now 1 year old and most of her life I had been an invalid. Tom and I took her to a friend who gave her lessons in how to show in conformation so she could go to the December Collie Specialties. I have a handler for conformation but I have always trained my puppies “how to show” and we had to get her ready. My friend JoAnne trained her and Tom pretended to be the judge. Layla was 2nd place Sweepstakes Finalist in December: I kept my eye on the prize. And it takes a village. And I was able to go to the specialties wearing my “immobilizer,” using my cane and even walked on grass. Woo hoo! Eight months had passed since my accident. It was now 2023 and to say I was quite over all this crap is an understatement. I continued with my PT. Tom and I got COVID (good grief, what next? Don’t ask!)

In March I began PT in the YMCA heated and covered pool. I went for 75 minutes three times a week (and I still go now, 8 months later) and practice walking routines and exercises given to me by my PT therapist. On April 11, I was unfortunately injured by a child when he knocked me off the steps onto the pool’s edge while I was getting out of the pool and I fell on the berm concrete edge. I fractured my #6 rib on the left side. My doctor put me on bed rest for 6 weeks. Then when I went back for a check up on June 5, I hated to complain, but I told him that I had a bad abdominal pain. He examined me and I had a “bilateral inguinal hernia,” probably from the stress on my abdomen from getting in and out of bed and the car. It required surgery and three mesh panels being inserted. I had that surgery in July. One week before, on May 27, Tom and I had also brought home a 3-month-old collie puppy, “Betsy.” We now had 6 collies! I was not giving up my dream of my collies and our fun: keep your eye on the prize.

I have not written about my husband, Tom, who is 74. He is a saint. He loves the dogs and he loves me, and has taken extraordinary care of all of us. He also has the house and our property to care for. And because I still was not driving: leg injury, broken rib, hernia, he was driving us all the time. He was busy.

June 2023: Baby Betsy joins our family: Josh, Rory, Gabi (L-R), Natalie was away at Gayle’s

By the last week of August I was doing pretty well. I was back at PT and I was not wearing the brace and did not need the cane except for tile floors and stepping off curbs. I started Layla and Betsy in foundation agility classes, and although my trainer did most of the training, there were some things I could train from a chair at home. And I was going to train these two young girls a bit differently: Distance style training with less running for me. I was able to walk sort of quickly, and with purpose, and good balance, around a short agility course.

I decided to “go for it.” On August 24 I mailed an agility trial entry for Rory for Sunday, October 1. That would give us a month to practice. To see if he would run ahead without me, to see if I could sustain that much strength to complete on an AKC course. Rory and I would had been away from agility for 18 months by the time the agility trial was held. Keep your eye on the prize.

The day I mailed it is important because two days later I had a mini-stroke, also called a TIA (Transient Ischemic Attack) and I was hospitalized for 3 days. The TIA resolved itself within the hour, as you hope they do. But I had to stay for many many tests. It was discovered I have a hole in my heart (PFO) and I have moderate AFib. You can’t make this much crap up. The weeks passed with me going to the cardiologists and the neurologist. I had to wear a heart monitor for 14 days. Tom took Betsy and Layla to training with my trainer, and I sat in the chair and watched. There were no practices for Rory. I could have pulled Rory’s entry for October 1, but I did not.

October 1 came: keep your eye on the prize. After all these 18 months of healing and physical therapy, Rory and I tried a spin around the ring on October 1. We did not qualify but we looked pretty good. I did not fall or lose my balance and Rory got a refusal on a bad call from me and knocked down a bar. I was so happy. Based on that day, I entered a trial that was 4 weeks later, on October 29. (The week before this trial, Rory practiced the weaves in our yard and took some practice jumps and a small course at a friend’s.)

October 2023: Our return to agility . . . Rory takes the jump (photo by Heidi Wallin)

October 29: I walked the course before our run. I hugged my beautiful loving Rory. We went to the line in jumpers. Rory and I placed third in Master Jumpers Preferred. I am so proud of our team. Rory, at age 7, with almost no practice (10 minutes on a Thursday night at Natalie’s class was all he had in October) remembered all of the years of our training and practice. He is a rockstar! (The video link to see our trial run is at the end of this story). You can see that neither of us are running really fast. Actually I am not running; walking fast and trotting is my personal best. Rory could run faster but he is not going to go very far ahead and leave me behind. But even with so many of my medical obstacles and so many months (out of a dog’s short life) we made it to the top with a third place. I am so grateful and relieved. I could not bear the thought of not winning again with Rory, but now that anticipated anxiety had blown away! This is where joy lives. I still go to physical therapy 2 or 3 times a week to strengthen my leg.

October 2023: Our return to agility: Our victory hug . . . such a wonderful Collie, my Rory (photo by Heidi Wallin)

Remember to keep your eye on the prize, and my real mantra, “Having fun with my dogs, this is where joy lives.” And Rory and Natalie are laying right at my feet while I type this. Have I told you I am blessed?

Jeannette and Rory's "Return To Agility" Video :: October 29, 2023

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