Note – Thanks go out to Chelsea Hutchison Foundation for hosting Chelsea’s Epilepsy Walk for SUDEP Awareness, which is where we were able to meet Rebecca and hear about her amazing story! CHF provides a variety of services to Coloradans with epilepsy including assistance with finding / paying for service dogs!!Despite a seizure disorder caused by complications from surgery, Rebecca Yorkston maintains an optimistic outlook, declaring that, “there is no strength where there is no struggle.” A resident of Lincoln, Nebraska, Rebecca suffered a cerebral hemorrhage as a result of surgery to correct impacted sinuses in 2002. In addition to myriad problems caused by the cerebral hemorrhage, Rebecca began to have seizures. Currently she suffers from both absence (petit-mal) and Jacksonian seizures. Despite these challenges,Rebecca has decided to embrace perseverance and optimism, finding happiness through her work, and even helping others to find ways to live more independently. Rebecca Yorkston is a Director with Domesti-Pups – a Lincoln, NE organization that trains service dogs to help people with challenges like epilepsy.
Doctors and Treatment
A testament to Rebecca’s optimism lies in her acknowledgment that, “unfortunately, the doctor [who performed the initial sinus surgery] had issues.” But she is quick to point out that she does not dwell in the past, adding that, “other doctors saved my life.” She continues, “I am very selective with my current doctors, but I trust them.” Rebecca also embraces the use of Assistive Technology (AT) as a way to stay independent. For example, to compensate for balance and coordination problems she does not hesitate to use a wheelchair while traveling alone. She also uses a smart watch that sends alerts when she has a seizure. This allows her to maintain autonomy as her friends are notified and can check on her if she is alone.
Rebecca faced numerous challenges following her life-threatening hemorrhage. Relearning to walk took two years and she was unable to drive for three years. Her seizures are often triggered by an overload of sensory input. “I have to make sure to plan ahead,” says Rebecca, and regular naps have become a constant in her schedule. Avoiding too many decisions at one time is also important. As an example she cites difficulties that can be faced while dining out. An unfamiliar or expansive menu can prove problematic. Rebecca states, “if I try to choose from too many [options] it can trigger a seizure.” In addition to the seizures, she has faced a few other challenges, such as being unable to do math at the same level she could before the surgery.
Due to reduced balance and coordination Rebecca looked into getting a service dog. However, she was unable to find a service that could provide both a dog and the training that the dog would need to become a successful service companion. Fortunately, she was able to piece the puzzle together by going to two different sources. First she adopted the dog, a black lab named Slater from a kennel in Colorado. Then she connected with a Lincoln-based non-profit called Domesti-Pups and the organization’s Executive Director Michelle Ashley. Slater was able to be trained and afterward Rebecca remained a consultant for the organization’s fledgling service dog program. It was after the hemorrhage that Michelle offered Rebecca the position to become the director of the service dog program, a position she still holds.
Rebecca introduces a “Domesti-Pup” to school kids in Nebraska.
Since Rebecca first became involved with Domesti-Pups in 2000, the service dog program has grown and provided service dogs to many people. The dogs are trained not only by volunteers but also through a program that allows inmates at local prisons the opportunity to train the dogs for the lifetime of assistance they will provide. “We have very strong criteria for how we pick [the dogs]” Rebecca says, which is evidenced by the qualification rates of the dogs for the program. “If we were to test 100 dogs, only about ten would qualify,” Rebecca continues that, “only seven or eight will graduate.” That small number of highly-trained dogs then becomes eligible for placement with recipients who greatly value their help.
Speaking with Rebecca about the dogs and the services they provide is clearly a source of happiness for her. “Service dogs can help with a lot of things we take for granted,” Rebecca says. She points to a specific example of a service dog that has been able to help a five-year-old to retrieve beverages without help from parents. Rebecca is excited about this achievement, because the service dog is helping a youngster, “who [otherwise] could never open a fridge.” This is just one of many ways that Domesti-Pups has been able to help people to achieve a little bit more independence in every-day life.
Tips and Tricks
Rebecca admits that after the surgery she was frustrated. But she soon came to realize that there was no benefit to, “continuing to stay angry with the doctor.” With the mantra of, “things happen for a reason,” Rebecca lives her life by staying focused on the present and near future as opposed to dwelling on the past. She encourages others to do the same. Rebecca advises that, “if we always look forward we will make it.” She also cautions against allowing a large task to become a mentally-insurmountable obstacle. To illustrate this, she describes the bicycling analogy of pedaling up a large hill. If she focuses on the summit from the very beginning, then the task is always incredibly difficult. But if she focuses instead on pedaling up the path immediately ahead of her, then she usually finds herself conquering the summit before she knows it. That same attitude can be used for any challenge placed in one’s path.
Seth serves as the Finance Director on the Seize The World board and he interviewed Rebecca Yorkston by telephone for her Strength feature. Seth was put in touch with Rebecca by Seize The World volunteers who met her at Chelsea’s Epilepsy Walk for SUDEP Awareness in Sept. 2012. The Walk was hosted by the Chelsea Hutchison Foundation. Seth was inspired to learn about Rebecca’s story and was amazed by what she has accomplished!