Service dog brings life to Fairchild NCO

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Mary O'Dell
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
The old saying, "dogs are a man's best friend," has never been more true than it is for Staff Sgt. Abigail Foster.

In November, 2011, Foster adopted a young golden retriever that would change her life forever.

After the removal of a golf-ball sized brain tumor in 2004, Foster's journey through a maze of medical appointments and procedures was just beginning. She was medically retired in 2006 after her third Medical Evaluation Board, but reenlisted again almost four years later.

"I felt I had unfinished business," Foster said. "I had a calling to finish out my duties in the military and jumped through hoops to ensure I was able to."

She came back into the military feeling confident, excited and ready to get back to work. However, after touring with Tops in Blue in 2011, Foster fell ill again, discovering a build-up of fluids inside of her skull, bringing her second brain surgery.

A cerebral shunt, a one-way valve used to drain the fluids from the brain to other parts of the body, was placed and usually sits outside the skull, but beneath the skin.

"The shunt wasn't enough, my brain was still collecting fluids," Foster said. "They had to place a separate lumbar shunt in my side to properly drain them."

She had already faced challenges much too difficult to imagine, but couldn't prepare for what was going to happen next.

"I became very ill in January and knew something wasn't right," she said. "They diagnosed me with staph-induced bacterial meningitis resulting from the second surgery and had to take the shunt out right away."

Medical officials even prepared her husband for the worst, as 74 percent of people diagnosed with this illness die from it.

"The amazing support and love I got from friends and family during the recovery process was unbelievable," said Foster.

Foster had also been diagnosed with an arthritic auto-immune disease, slowly fusing her spine into one piece. Her husband, Brett, was devastated, having been through an already obscene amount of medical issues and treatment; they were searching for an answer.

Foster began chemotherapy last August to help with the disease, but the meningitis brought her treatments to a halt, which was not ideal.

This is where the golden retriever entered her life.

A co-worker of Brett's suggested they get a puppy [Luke] and the necessity of his support made the couple want to convert him into a service dog.

"The brothers and sisters from the previous litter of puppies were all service dogs," Brett said. "Between that and the pure mellowness of this dog, I knew we were making the right decision."

Foster first began taking Luke out in public in April, 2012 when he became American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen certified. It wasn't until after her third surgery the need for Luke's assistance became absolutely necessary.

Because of the previous surgeries, contraction of meningitis and a recent diagnosis of vestibular vertigo, her equilibrium was compromised, making her completely unstable.

"There are days I can barely stand, let alone keep my balance," she said. "That's where he comes in to keep me steady and let me know when I need to sit down and take it easy."

Brett said they had been dating less than six months when she told him about the tumor and now, eight years later, they are married and facing the ups and downs that come their way together.

Now weighing in at 68 pounds, Luke acts as a brace and alert service dog for her day-to-day activities.

Not only does Luke alert her when it's time to take her medicine, but even before a migraine or a dizzy spell sets in. While he quickly picked up on all of her symptoms, new and old, when you take off his gear - he is just a normal dog.

"His training to become a service dog began when we first brought him home," Foster said. "Right from the start, he was exposed to my illnesses and every day from there has been part of the process."

The Fosters said it has been a long and trying process training Luke themselves, but with consistency and the help of trainers downtown, he is well on his way to full certification with the state of Washington. They hope to have him completely locally certified by the end of this year.

"Training him ourselves takes a lot of patience," said Foster. "We are finally getting it down to a science, almost as if it's a game."

Foster restarted chemotherapy just recently and is now in the Phoenix Star program working when she can with Luke by her side at the base Chapel while yet another MEB is conducted.

"It's so rewarding to have that bond with him," she said. "We are linked in a way that is unexplainable."

She expects to be out of the service by the end of the year and said it's very bittersweet to be moving onto other things and finishing her career in the Air Force.

The Fosters also hope to breed Luke and his new companion, Lady, who is also beginning training to become a service dog.

"She has the size to help me with stability," said Foster. "Luke sets an almost perfect example for her and we can work out the kinks with both of them together."

Brett said they both realize there are issues bigger than both of them and while Abigail is a strong woman, he is there to be strong for her when he needs to be. It's settling to know that Luke is there when he can't be, he added.

"I believe I've played the cards I was dealt pretty well," Foster said. "I think my military journey has come to an end and I'm just thankful every day to be alive."