Topeka When Lisa Clark lifted her left leg several inches off the ground for the first time since the accident, her beloved Tally was there to see her do it.
You might call it a coincidence that she accomplished this feat while her 8-year-old boxer, a certified therapy dog, was sitting nearby. But Clark and her loved ones might disagree.
The dog's ability to help people through challenging times is why Clark, who teaches first and second grade at Lawrence's Schwegler School, introduced therapy dogs to the local district about 20 years ago. She's seen them comfort students with conditions like anxiety, cerebral palsy and autism.
Now things have come full circle, as those same dogs help her recover from a serious spinal injury.
Clark was riding horseback near Clinton Lake in early October when her horse stepped into a hornet's nest and, "started bucking like a rodeo horse."
"Luckily, I was wearing my helmet," said Clark, 58.
Regardless, the impact of the fall broke her back, cracked a vertebrae, punctured her lungs and broke her ribs. She was life-flighted to Kansas University Hospital, where surgeons operated on her spine for approximately eight hours. A few weeks later, she was transferred to the Kansas Rehabilitation Hospital in Topeka, where, ever since, she has been doing intense physical therapy for four hours every weekday.
Before going into surgery, she asked Angie Rexroad, a fellow therapy dog handler whose boxer works with students at Schwegler, to take care of Tally because Clark's husband travels for work. That also meant Rexroad could continue to bring Tally to school.
That's not the only place Rexroad now takes Tally.
On a recent day at the Topeka rehab facility, Rexroad walked her own dog, Rex, and Tally into the gymnasium where Clark was doing therapy. The sight of the dogs put instant smiles on the faces of patients who were clearly in pain. A woman sitting in a wheelchair near the entrance called Tally over and started petting and kissing her. "Tally has a friend today," said one of the physical therapists.
"She's pretty well known here," Rexroad remarked.
Rexroad walked Tally and Rex over to Clark, prompting her to crack a smile, about the only movement she could muster above her neck, which was outfitted with a brace.
The dogs sat by as Clark tried to teach her muscles how to move again. Clark tried to stand up with the help of a walker. She finally did it on her second try, but a few seconds later fell back to the bed, complaining of leg spasms.
She tried again, appearing to concentrate on every breath while her physical therapists massaged her knees and back. She stood up longer this time, but eventually had to sit back down, looking pained and exhausted. Tally panted and looked out the window.
Introduced dogs to district
Clark, who grew up in Lawrence, started training and showing dogs when she was in high school. Years ago, at the suggestion of her veterinarian, she began training them for another Kansas school district as well as the statewide service-dog organization. Clark worked with the dogs from the time they were puppies, bringing them to Schwegler during the school day. Once they were ready, she would give them to their new handler.
"She can take a puppy and fall in love with it and be OK with giving it to someone in much more need than she is," said Rexroad. "Now she's in a situation where she needs Tally."
Clark got Tally eight years ago to be a full-time service dog at Schwegler. Tally and Rex, who is 4, help students with special needs, as well as kids who are just having a bad day and need a pick-me-up. The canines provide "unconditional love," as Rexroad says, kissing and hugging the children and taking them on walks during recess.
Christy McWhirt, a second-grade teacher who has taught across the hall from Clark for the past nine years, says students and teachers alike love Clark. "It's amazing how many people stop by and ask if Lisa's OK," she said. Friends recently sold "Lisa Strong" T-shirts to help offset the costs of making Clark's home wheelchair accessible.
Clark still hopes she can return to teaching. The next six months to a year will determine a lot, since that's generally the amount of the time spinal injuries take to recover. Either way, her beloved Tally will be by her side, helping lift her spirits.
"I love seeing my dogs," Clark said. "You see them and you can forget for a little while."
Not only does she miss her canine friends, but she's having an equally hard time being away from her students.
"One little boy wrote me a card. He remembered this little saying the children and I developed last year," said Clark, who's been taking his words of encouragement to heart. "He wrote in the card: "I can. I'll try. I'll do my best.'"