By Sudha Kamath
For the first time in the 11 years since she began experiencing a mysterious medical condition, a George Mason University student is getting some potentially lifesaving relief from a new, four-legged best friend.
Junior Courtney Simmons, of Springfield, Va., suffers from a condition that causes her to black out for up to 45 minutes about four times a month. But now Zido (pronounced “zee-dough”), her 2-year-old service dog, is able to guide and protect her on campus and off, 24/7. The yellow Labrador senses Simmons’ heart issues, blood pressure changes and migraines, even before Simmons does.
Simmons first started experiencing symptoms when she was 10 years old. Initially, she blacked out about once a month, and each episode lasted about 20 minutes. Neurologists have not been able to pinpoint all the causes of her rare condition. So Simmons reached out to Canine Partners for Life in Pennsylvania to find a service dog to help her cope. It took her and her family almost a year—and thousands of dollars along with money from fundraising—to bring Zido home.
For three weeks this October, Simmons, supported by her mother, Susan, trained with Zido at the Chester County, Pa., facility. Their on-site training involved maneuvering obstacle courses and practicing service skills such as picking up objects, as well as off-site visits to restaurants and shopping malls.
Zido alerts Simmons to oncoming cardiac issues by first staring at her, then touching or even licking her hand to let her know what’s about to happen. The 63-pound dog then covers Simmons, using his body like a blanket.
“Words can’t even explain how safe I feel when he’s lying on me. It’s like he’s protecting me,” the communication major writes in her blog. “It’s a scary thing when I have an episode because my arms, hands and legs become completely stiff and I can’t move. I also have a hard time breathing …. But I’ve noticed that having Zido on me is like a pressurized heating pad that can loosen my muscles.”
The pair graduated Nov. 2 and arrived at George Mason Nov. 5—both proudly sporting green and gold to classes, and to a meeting of the Office of Admissions’ Mason Ambassadors group, of which Simmons is president.
“Professors and students are really understanding of us since it’s such a diverse campus,” says Simmons.
“From the moment I met her, I knew she was someone special,” says Lauren Wagner, assistant director in admissions and advisor to the Mason Ambassadors. “Courtney proves not only how to live with challenges, but how to shine despite them.”
Simmons also found guidance through Naomi Martinez-Jones, assistant director of Mason’s Office of Disability Services in the Division of University Life. “I think Zido will continue to help Courtney be successful at Mason, as well as make her feel more comfortable with her disability,” Martinez-Jones says.
Martinez-Jones says trained service animals, such as Zido, do not need permission to be on campus, but some owners inform her office as a precaution. “The Mason community is very supportive of students with disabilities and their needs,” she says.
Simmons and Zido are living at home in Springfield this semester, but with the support of Housing and Residence Life, they plan to move next semester into campus apartments where they will live with three roommates.
“I can’t explain it, but when I look at him or hear his tags jingling behind me when we walk, all I can do is smile,” says Simmons. “I won’t have to question if something is happening … worry about ever being alone … to fear standing up ever again. I’m going to be able to really live …. I feel so blessed by the freedom and peace that he’s given me.”