Lion Nancy Lagasse of Virginia was 72 hours from killing herself when the phone rang and four words—
’You have a dog’—changed her life.
“What a beautiful seeing-eye dog,” the woman in the parking lot says to Nancy Lagasse. It’s not the first time she’s heard it today, and it won’t be the last. Inwardly, she has to laugh. First of all, she’s not blind, and, secondly, at that very moment, she’s getting out of her van, car keys in hand.
Yet, as she is each and every time, Lagasse is polite and enthusiastic, explaining that her 90-pound Labrador Retriever is a wonderfully talented canine companion, service dog and goodwill ambassador who supports her as she lives with multiple sclerosis. Lagasse is tempted to add—but refrains— that her four-legged, tail-wagging helper has not yet learned to drive.
It has been 11 years since the call came that altered the rapid downward course of her life. Lagasse had been a thriving nurse, artist, homemaker, horseback rider and volunteer when she was diagnosed in 2000 with multiple sclerosis, a disease in which the body’s immune system attacks its own nerves. Besides stabbing pain, the disorder causes balance and movement problems, dizziness and eventually, in its progressive forms, substantial disability. Lagasse had been forced to use a cane and sometimes a wheelchair.
As time passed, Lagasse lost her job, her home, her husband and her will to go on. She was 55 years old.
“Life as I knew it ceased to exist,” she says today. “My mind tried to will my body to perform the things that I had done for my entire life, but it was futile. I could no longer work at the job that I loved dearly. I could no longer ride horseback or will my hands to play the piano, paint or sculpt or bake with my children. My husband left me and took our money. I believed my life was over. I had a plan to end my pain.”
Fatefully, two years earlier, Lagasse had gotten on the long waiting list of an organization called Canine Companions for Independence, which trains and provides assistance dogs, free of charge, to people with disabilities. Founded in 1975, CCI was the first program of its type in the nation, and its “graduates” are hugely in demand. When the call came that Lagasse had finally made it to the top of the list, she was just three days from the date she’d chosen to put an end to it all.
“I told them I’d think about it,” Lagasse remembers. “Which shocked them, because these dogs are so in demand. But I had given up hope. I’d confided in my daughter about my plans, and she begged me to go up to this small town on Long Island where they conducted two-week training sessions for the recipients of service dogs. I went, thinking it would be our last mother-daughter trip.
” What Lagasse found in Medford, New York, was community, hope and, ultimately, life. Who she found was Arkin, a two-and-a- half-year-old, mind-reading partner who could—among some 50 different commands— pick up whatever she dropped, take off her socks, empty her clothes dryer, turn lights on and off and, most importantly (and without any command needed), accept her for who she was.
“When I got to CCI,” Lagasse says, “I was amazed. These people wanted nothing from me—all the training and provision of the dogs is paid for by corporate and private donations. They knew I was balanced on the precipice and they were ready for my needs. Everything began to change.” It was during her stay at CCI that the Lions appeared on her radar.
“The two weeks of learning to work with our service dogs on the CCI campus were intense but rewarding. I was in a class of twelve, each with varied disabilities,” says Lagasse. “In our downtime we gathered in the beautiful bistro and family room which was made possible by contributions from Lions clubs. It was called the Lions Den, and it was the place we’d share our stories of what brought us to Canine Companions. We’d eat, play games, watch movies and just bond, hugging and supporting one another. These were the most giving people I have ever met. They were loving, supportive and positive. I began to realize that life was a gift. That anything was possible.”
When she returned to her home in Virginia with Arkin, you could say she had an entirely new leash on life. Arkin showered her with love and friendship and made it possible for her to go just about anywhere and do just about anything. Along with her CCI classmates and fellow graduates, she felt part of a nationwide community—“wrapped in their arms,” as she puts it. And she never forgot the generosity of Lions. By 2008, she was one herself.
Today, Nancy Lagasse is a little bit busy. She volunteers her time for nine different organizations including Habitat for Humanity, a veterans’ group, a suicide prevention concern, a hospital and her synagogue. “One of my favorite quotes comes from Gandhi,” she offers. “He said, ‘The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in service to others.’ Volunteering does as much or more for me as it does for those we serve.”
First and foremost, according to her, Lagasse is an active member of the Warrenton Sunrise Lions Club—about an hour west of Washington, D.C. When she moved 20 miles south to Culpeper, her club wouldn’t let her leave, and some days they drive nearly an hour to bring her to meetings. “It’s a real family,” she says. “I’m so proud of being a Lion.”
As a Virginia District 24 trustee for the Lions Project for Canine Companions, Lagasse gives presentations throughout the District of Columbia area, promoting CCI to Lions clubs and other groups. She tells her story, and how her life changed with the help of her furry helper.
“When I go out and about in public,” Lagasse points out, “whether with a cane or wheelchair, people used to stare at me with pity or avoid me all together. Now strangers still look at me—but, in reality, they are staring at my canine partner. He’s a people magnet! They are drawn to me with questions, compliments and admiration. I often laugh and share with them that now it is never about me! It’s all about my pooch. How wonderful that is.” It hasn’t always been easy.
CCI assistance dogs are retired from active service around age eight, and go on to become much loved family pets. Parting with Arkin almost sent Lagasse back down the rabbit hole. “Retiring the dog that saved my life was so tough,” she remembers. “When they began the process of providing me with a second dog, I said, ‘I can’t do this again. I don’t want another dog.’ They patiently convinced me that I could go home with a second dog and continue to live independently ... or not.” So Lagasse went home with Writer, named in honor of longtime CCI supporter and bestselling author Dean Koontz. The well-fed dog bears an uncanny resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock. Like the famous director, Writer is very, very smart. And unlike said director, not at all creepy.
“CCI matches a dog with you both physically and emotionally,” says Lagasse. I will always deal with depression, so I need a sensitive dog. Writer knows how to help me.” That ranges from emotional support to helping her do laundry to bringing her drinks from the fridge—although since cans look like cans to a dog, Lagasse never knows if she’ll get a soda or a beer. So Nancy Lagasse moves forward, helping as many people as she can through her Lions club and many other groups. She’s horseback riding and snow skiing again and relearning the piano.
“There’s something very powerful,” she explains, “about standing at the precipice of your life. Every single day after is a choice. You ask yourself, ‘Is this day going to matter? Will I live it to the fullest?’ My biggest life lesson is to see MS as an inconvenience rather than a roadblock. With Writer’s help I can do anything anyone else can—I just have to figure out how to do it differently. Disabled is not unable, and, yes, I will live to the fullest every day.”