Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center
Air Force Veteran gets a helping paw
A new outlook
In the Spring of 2015, Air Force Veteran and Charleston VAMC patient Stacy Pearsall suffered from a grand mal seizure—causing a loss of consciousness and violent muscle contractions. The seizure occurred as she and her husband were pulling out of their neighborhood, Pearsall was in the passenger seat.
“My husband remembers holding the collar of my shirt with one hand while I leaned out of the car, and calling 911 with his other hand,” said Pearsall. “It was then I realized I needed more help—more than I could do on my own.”
While serving in in Iraq in 2004 as a combat photographer, Pearsall’s convoy was hit by a bomb, she survived. Three years later, her convoy was hit again and she suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Her injuries were so serious, that it was the end of her military career.
“All I wanted to do was get back to work,” said Pearsall.
After being temporarily retired from the military in 2008, Pearsall continued her work as a photographer through a self-described “extension of her service,” an independent endeavor known as the Veterans Portrait Project (VPP). The mission? To photograph Veterans, allowing them to share their story; then sharing those images with the Veteran, their family and their country to document their military service and ensure their commitment and sacrifice is not lost.
For eight years, Pearsall expanded VPP, all while keeping her injury symptoms to herself, only sharing her challenges with her husband and closest friends.
“I would do my best to hide them—like most military people,” she said.
Pearsall suffered from dizzy spells, memory issues, blinding headaches, hearing loss and what she believes were some mild seizures.
After the 2015 seizure, Pearsall was on the road with VPP at the VFW convention in Baltimore. It was there that she met two representatives from America’s VetDogs, an organization that trains and matches service dogs with Veterans in need.
“I didn’t feel like their typical person who needed a service dog. I didn’t have a missing limb and I wasn’t in a wheelchair.”
She reviewed the VetDogs application and remembers a particular question – How can a service dog help you in your life?
It was important to Pearsall to be able to continue to work—to have a purpose, and a service dog could help her do that.
She completed the application and waited for two years.
Here comes Charlie
“I had just returned from Veterans Portrait Project travel. I felt sick and I remember sitting on the staircase weeping, thinking I can’t do this anymore. And just a few days later I got the call from VetDogs saying they had a potential match for me,” shares Pearsall.
It was the Today Show’s “puppy with a purpose” being trained in front of all of America with VetDogs. It was Charlie.
Pearsall was one of a few Veterans being considered as a match for Charlie.
The VetDogs representative was clear that with this dog came great responsibility—he was a national superstar.
“I was already doing the Veterans Portrait Project and bringing awareness to Veteran’s needs, so to me it was a good fit since we were both already bringing attention to Veteran issues,” said Pearsall.
Having Charlie by her side also meant that Pearsall had to face her challenges head on, slow down and accept help.
“He is a walking billboard, telling everyone something is different about me. All those things about me are out in the open now.”
At home with Charlie
Charlie, a young black lab, has been home with Pearsall in Goose Creek, South Carolina since Dec. 15. He is highly trained—helping wake Pearsall from night terrors, alerting for help if she experiences a seizure, reducing her anxiety, closing cabinet doors, retrieving dropped items, and providing stability for balanced walking and getting up from a low position, among a stocked portfolio of other skills.
His help will allow Pearsall to continue her work traveling for VPP; work that is helping other Veterans.
Charlie is just one of now three dogs in the house; Pearsall has two pet Corgis, Pickles and Lilly. Fresh off training, Pearsall is working with all three dogs so they understand their different roles.
“Charlie is always working—so I have to make sure I’m always working on that communication with him. That’s different than my domestic dogs.”
The new pet siblings are still feeling each other out. Pickles trying to romp and play with Charlie, while Pearsall and Charlie gently remind, with food reawards, that Charlie is on the job.
Pearsall is looking forward to continuing her training with Charlie and their first VPP trip in 2018.
“Charlie going out with me will help other Veterans realize there are options,” said Pearsall. “They don’t have to suffer quietly.”