REACH Stories

Karen Smiley

When Dogs Fly

Karen Smiley

It was a stormy, rainy, dark night in Eureka, on California’s rugged northern coast. Imagine a turbulent medical emergency airplane flight where skill and trust between caregivers, pilot and patient become the threads weaving together to safely bring a very sick young woman to a surgeon who will help deliver her from continued suffering.

The trusting patient, in severe pain from a gastrointestinal problem, is Karen Smiley. Her last name suits her well; in spite of sometimes daunting physical problems, Karen is eternally cheerful, and grateful for what she has and where life takes her. Karen is legally blind, stemming from hereditary albinism affecting her since birth. As Karen describes her visual limitations, “When I look at people, I only see their silhouettes.”

It was just a remarkable flight for me to be a part of, as well as making a difference for this patient.
Flight Nurse Maggie Johnston

One of Karen’s greatest gifts is her seeing-eye dog and constant companion, Dotty. After falling down a couple sets of steps, it dawned on Karen she might be eligible for a trained canine friend. Inquiring with Guide Dogs for the Blind, she discovered she was indeed a candidate. Thus Dotty came into her life. Sitting next to Karen in the REACH air ambulance, the black Labrador/Golden Retriever mix assisted the flight crew with keeping Karen calm in spite of her pain and the bumpy weather.

Dotty almost missed that plane ride, as the staff at the hospital had said, “No way–you can’t take Dotty.” Karen’s reply was, “Are you kidding? She has to come. Having Dotty there made it all feel more secure for me.”

Karen and her husband, Eric, are always there to support each other. Karen and her husband, Eric, are always there to support each other.

REACH Flight Nurse Maggie Johnston remembers that night well. “Seeing Dotty interact with our patient was quite amazing, and to have a canine along for the transport was so cool! Dotty was such a gem and really helped our patient with her anxiety and pain throughout the transport. I can’t imagine being blind, trusting us as clinicians to transport her in the stormy weather in an unfamiliar setting. Not knowing what was happening nor seeing her surroundings must have been frightening. Karen began to trust us with her care and with managing Dotty during transport, and she started to feel comfortable. It was just a remarkable flight for me as a nurse to be a part of, as well as making a difference for this patient. I never will forget that transport.”

Karen is grateful for the ride “It’s a really good service. I loved the care, and I’ve only heard good things about it. Dotty got to sit up with the pilot, who took pictures of her. The nurse explained everything to me, like ‘We are in the ambulance,’ and ‘Now we are getting into the plane.’ ”

As Karen recovers from her surgery, she keeps busy with Dotty, and husband Erik, too, who is always at her side. She appreciatively says of Dotty, “She has to be in everybody’s business. I’m surely glad she’s in mine!”

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