This is the story of two unlikely friends. Patti Valero, a firefighter who lost her leg in a motorcycle accident in October of 2009, and a visitor who appeared at her hospital a few weeks later.
Patti was in the hospital, just getting ready for her physical therapy session, when an unusual visitor came to check in on her. The hospital visit had been scheduled by Westcoast Brace & Limb, as part of their Amputee Peer Visitor program. This program connects experienced amputees with people new to limb loss. Patti’s Amputee Peer Visitor on this day had been living with limb loss for all of his life; the result of a congenital defect. When Patti saw her Amputee Peer Visitor, she saw a sight that was “beyond words”. Patti’s Amputee Peer Visitor was Journey, a two year old Golden Retriever that wears a prosthetic front paw. “When I met Journey,” Patti recalls, “it brought me hope. Journey is so strong, so determined… he inspired me.”
Today, Patti wears a prosthetic leg that incorporates a vacuum suction socket and adjustable heel height foot. She has returned to the fire department and looks back nostalgically to the place where her path took a crucial turn. “Meeting Journey opened me back up to my own potential.” Since visiting Patti in the hospital, Journey has continued his mission to visit patients in need of emotional support. Journey’s owners, Pat and Ron Graff, have lived in Tampa for over 11 years. The Graffs became involved with Therapy Dogs International (TDI) seven years ago, when they adopted a golden retriever puppy named Jason. Therapy Dogs International (TDI) is a nonprofit organization based in New Jersey that provides the framework for training, evaluation, testing, and certifying of therapy dogs.
Once certified, Jason immediately began his mission to provide comfort, companionship and plenty of smiles to hospital patients, nursing home residents, school children and countless others.
When Jason was five years old, the Graffs received a call from Jason’s breeder. Pat remembers taking the call from the breeder, who said he had a new litter of golden retriever pups. One was born missing most of his left front paw. “My first reaction,” Pat remembers, “was… wow. Can we handle another golden?”
Pat and Ron recount their first impressions of the pup as “love at first sight”. His AKC registration name is ‘Eagle Ridge Don’t Stop Believing’, an iconic song by the band ‘Journey’. The name stuck and the Graffs quickly shortened it to ‘Journey’. Journey’s mother and siblings did not treat the pup any differently. According to Pat, “he had to dive right in and establish his place in the pack.”
Once ‘out of the pack’, Journey still had to learn to fend for himself. That’s when the Graffs began researching prosthetic options for their future therapy dog.
In 2009, Journey was fit with a prosthetic paw by Westcoast Brace & Limb. The paw was specially designed to withstand the rigorous daily activities of the golden retriever, while still being comfortable and flexible enough for the dog to accept it. The foot is a carbon fiber design, that provides shock absorption, flexibility, and energy return; much like a prosthetic foot designed for a human being.
The socket was fabricated based on a mold of Journey’s residual paw, and includes a flexible interface and rigid frame. Just as a growing child, Journey returns to Westcoast Brace & Limb regularly for adjustments to accommodate for his growth. Wear and tear is an issue with any prosthetic device and Journey’s is no exception.
To Pat Graff, there’s no question as to how Journey feels about his prosthetic paw. “Journey feels good about his prosthesis. While he is very able to get around on just three legs, he seems much happier when he’s wearing the prosthetic paw. His gait is improved, he can stand more easily, and he seems to be aware that the prosthesis is there to help. From day one, he has never pulled at it or tried to chew it. It’s almost like he instinctively knows this is a good thing.”
Considering his love of people and his gentle nature, it’s no surprise that Journey excelled in his therapy certification. Journey and his adoptive brother Jason now tour hospitals throughout the Tampa Bay area, and beyond. Journey’s limb loss, Pat points out, helps him reach out to patients. “Journey is an extremely happy and outgoing dog… that’s infectious. I can’t tell you the number of people who have commented that, even with limb loss, he’s such a happy dog. Nothing seems to bother him or slow him down. People respond to that and feel better for knowing him.” Patti Valero enjoyed visits from ‘human’ amputee peer visitors, but she holds her visit with Journey as something very special… unexpected inspiration from a unexpected friend.