Karen's Story: The Birth of 4 Paws

Chapter 1

A Dream Begins

I can still clearly remember the day I envisioned 4 Paws For Ability and began the journey toward a dream that would help people like me who had to live with disabilities. It was fall, and my service dog, Ben, and I sat behind our Ohio home watching the leaves drift lazily from nearby trees.

My despair as a young woman with Myasthenia Gravis (MG) had finally disappeared because of this amazing dog’s qualities. The struggle to get Ben was worth every shed tear and every gut-wrenching disappointment along the way.

No longer on a ventilator all the time, I watched him play, and began dreaming and planning for an agency where anyone with a disability would not be turned away.

I thought of the long waiting lists many agencies had. I knew there were people with disabilities who would rather work to raise the money for training than sit on a three-year list waiting for a free dog.

And who could have known the rest of my dreams...the silent ones?

Children. A family.


In 1987, I was a carefree young woman, going to school to become a social worker. In addition to my full class schedule, I worked full-time in the field of developmental disabilities. Like most college students, I existed on little sleep and was always tired. Looking back on that time, it is easy for me to see the progression of the disease, but at the time I shrugged off the symptoms, blaming them on my full schedule.

Slammed by Myasthenia Gravis

All of that changed when difficulty breathing became respiratory arrest. From that day forward I began a life journey far different than the one I envisioned in those early years. The disease hit hard and fast. It quickly robbed me of any meaningful life. Long hospital stays wore heavy on my relationships with others and all but my closest friends disappeared from my life.

In 1994 I had been dealing with what was diagnosed as Myasthenia Gravis, a rare neuromuscular disease, for almost seven years. Treatment had not been effective, and the disease hit again, this time robbing me of the will to live.

A friend of mine tried to find an agency to place a service dog with me, but agency after agency turned us away. It seemed that these agencies with their long waiting lists had developed guidelines that often excluded those they deemed too disabled or not disabled enough.

I spent much of my life at that time respirator dependent. The responses from the agencies were always the same: there were others who had more ability than I, or others they felt their dogs would assist in reintegration into the community.

Finally, one agency accepted my application and placed me on their waiting list. Eighteen months later they called to tell me they had a match, and they sent a woman out to see what tasks the dog would need to learn. Two weeks later I received a letter in the mail:

"We are sorry," it said, "but our agency guidelines prohibit the placement of service dogs with people who use ventilators."

Why bother staying alive?

Prior to the meeting I had allowed myself to feel a little hope. It was exciting to think of a dog that could, at the very least, allow me some time alone, with the dog being able to accomplish many of the tasks being performed by my personal care assistants.

When that letter came, I gave up all hope. I had often thought of ending my life. In fact, I had saved enough morphine to accomplish the task easily. When I looked at my life, all I could see was death, a long slow death, with each day robbing me of some little pieces of ability I had held the day before.

I now refer to those times as the days of death; it saddens me that I lost such a large chunk of my life. I also see how lucky I was. I had a close friend who refused to watch me die. She dragged me from place to place looking at puppies, trying desperately to get me to once more cling to life and to find the courage to fight for that life.

Continue to Chapter 2