Blinking back tears, I watched as my mother Lynne stroked the new dog in her living room. She let it nuzzle her while patting its soft ears and kissing its head. “I’m so glad you’re here,’ she whispered to the dog. “We’ll get along fine, me and you.’ I was glad too. This Labrador cross was more than a new pet for Mum – she would be her ears and give her back her life. At 61, Mum was profoundly deaf. She had gone deaf slowly when I was a child and my dad Derek had taken care of her. If the doorbell had gone, he’d answered it. If the phone rang, he’d get it and he always took Mum to the shops, smiling as they went out and about. But a few months earlier, he’d died of motor neurone disease. Now Mum was alone.
I went round to see her as often as I could but, without Dad, Mum couldn’t live as full a life as before. She couldn’t hear the doorbell buzz or know if the phone was ringing. She couldn’t go out as much because she couldn’t hear traffic at the roadside. It was hard enough grieving for my dad, but seeing Mum housebound was too much to bear. But now, at last, all that would change. Mum had been matched with a trained assistance dog – a hearing dog – to be her ears. She named her Wilma and I was just as relieved as Mum that she was there.
As the weeks passed, Wilma settled in. I’d go round to visit and was amazed at the two sides to her: in the evenings, she was a cuddly, home-loving dog who loved to nuzzle up to me on the sofa. But when she was ‘working’ she was every inch the professional. She’d bark if the doorbell rang, run to the phone if someone called. She would stand at Mum’s side at the roadside until it was safe to cross. “I can’t believe I coped before without her,” Mum said one evening, kissing her. “She’s adorable,” I said, stroking her.
Wilma didn’t fill the gaping hole Dad had left when he’d passed away. But she did look after Mum. It meant I could sleep easy knowing Wilma was looking after Mum all night. A few weeks elapsed. Then I started feeling tired. As the days passed it was more like exhaustion. Then I was in the kitchen one day when I fell down. I stumbled a few days later as well. Soon I couldn’t even get out of bed. I lived alone and it was terrifying. I went to my GP but he seemed uninterested. “Are you depressed?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. He even hinted that maybe I was lonely and needed counselling.
I went back again and again. By now I was so exhausted I couldn’t even prepare a meal – not that I even had an appetite. My doctor suggested everything from anorexia to ME. But every test or suggestion came back negative. “Well, it’s a mystery,” my doctor said, baffled. Soon I was bedridden. I felt terrible because I couldn’t even summon the energy to drag myself round to Mum’s. I comforted myself with one thought: Wilma was there to look after her.
Then one day Mum came round. She took one look at me – thin and languishing in bed – and shook her head. “Right, that’s it,” she said. “You’re coming to live with me.” I opened my mouth to argue but Mum put a finger to her lips. I was too weak to disagree. Mum and a friend helped me move temporarily to my mum’s house. I was so weak I spent the days and nights on her sofa. I couldn’t even feed myself. Mum would make me liquid feeds and help me shuffle to the toilet. “I just wish someone would believe me... I wish I knew what was wrong,” I’d groan.
I had heart palpitations I was so frail. One evening Mum got me comfortable on the sofa and placed a glass of water and painkillers at my side. Then she went to bed. During the night, I couldn’t sleep. I was in so much pain and felt so weak. I got into a position and then, suddenly, terror hit me. I couldn’t move. I felt my body in spasms and my face was pressed against the sofa. I couldn’t breathe, yet I couldn’t move. I thought: I’ll suffocate... and I can’t cry out because Mum can’t hear me...
I tried to scream. But I was pressed against the sofa in agony. It was no use anyway. Mum would never hear my cries. In the darkness, I began to despair. What life did I have anyway? I was becoming more and more frail, more ill and exhausted by the day. I was too weak to fight... Then a name popped into my head. “Wilma...” I croaked into the darkness. Seconds later, I felt something at my side – a wet nose and a soft, furry face.
Relief washed over me. Then another feeling: the will to survive. “Wilma,” I gasped, “please... get Mum... Help me...” She understood immediately. She left my side and I heard her pacing to Mum’s room where, barking frantically, she managed to wake her up. I heard Mum get up and race to my side. ‘Oh, Sharon!’ she cried. She lifted me just in time and moved me so I could breathe again.
As I took great, desperate gulps of air, tears rolled down my face. Mum turned the lights on and I was able to explain to her. “Wilma...Wilma saved me...” I wept. Then the dog was at my side, rubbing her head against me, checking I was OK. “Thank you, Wilma,” I cried. “Thank you.” From then on, Wilma stood guard next to me all through the night. She’d do her duties for Mum, see her to bed, then come and watch me. If I ever needed the loo, Wilma would stand there as I steadied myself. If I needed painkillers, she’d trot off and get Mum. She’d even nudge my glass of water nearer or pick up my blankets if they fell. “You’re my doggy Nurse Nightingale,” I said, stroking her.
Meanwhile, though, I was getting worse. I was so frail, I could barely sip water. Finally a friend brought another doctor round. He took one look at me and immediately called for an ambulance. “This woman needs to be in hospital. Now,” he said. I was rushed to hospital where they ran tests. At last, after months of not being listened to, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a condition that causes muscle pain and extreme fatigue. But that wasn’t all. Doctors ran tests on my heart which showed I had a heart infection and that a valve was blocked. That had been what was causing the palpitations and the falls. “You could have died,” one doctor said.
I was kept in hospital on antibiotics and drips and had regular scans to monitor my heart. Finally three long months later I was allowed home. Now, a year on, I am still recovering but feel better. I am on medication for my heart and fibromyalgia and I see a heart specialist every six months. Coping with exhaustion and pain for so long almost made me too frail to carry on. But the night I nearly suffocated taught me how much I longed to fight. And thanks to Wilma, I am still here to do so.
I can’t thank Wilma enough for caring for me. Not only is she Mum’s ears, she was my carer when I needed nursing, bringing Mum whenever I needed her. She truly is a doggy Nurse Nightingale and she saved my life.