Mail Online: My canine carer can even tell when I’m about to faint

After years of ill health nearly destroyed her, Libbi Mattick rediscovered her freedom thanks to her assistance dog Sparrow. She tells Kate Thompson about the amazing four-legged saviour who fetches help, brings her medicine – and does the laundry.

Mail Online by Kate Thompson: 23 May 2021

Extracts:

Sparrow arrived in Libbi’s home in Surrey on Christmas Eve 2018. After a gruelling 13-year battle with ME, Libbi was virtually housebound; unable to venture out alone for fear of being overwhelmed by the exhaustion, headaches, panic attacks, fainting episodes and seizures which dominated her life.

Sparrow

‘Aged 15, I came down with a virus called labyrinthitis and never recovered,’ explains Libbi. ‘My life imploded. I went from being a fun-loving, healthy girl, who adored ballet, to someone who needed help walking up the stairs,’ says Libbi, now 29.

Over the next two years Libbi’s body was overwhelmed by ME and a resulting eating disorder, and she marked her 18th birthday on a hospital ward.

‘My weight had dropped by half and I began having seizures, which were diagnosed as epilepsy. It was terrifying. My education suffered as I couldn’t manage full days at school, I had to give up dancing and most of my friends drifted away. It was as if my body had turned against me. I was still a teenager but I felt like a 90-year-old.’

Libbi Mattick
Libbi, Irving and Sparrow at Disney World Florida, 2018

The physical trauma had a knock-on effect on Libbi’s mental health. ‘I struggled with depression, anxiety and panic attacks. I also developed an obsessive-compulsive disorder.’

As her peers went off to university, Libbi could barely summon up the energy to wash her own hair. To add to her pain, at that time, many in the medical profession still believed that ME was a psychological condition, with sufferers frequently made to feel as though they could – and should – snap out of it.

But Libbi’s stay in hospital did have a positive side-effect. ‘In outpatient treatment afterwards, I met a brilliant eating-disorder nurse who understood that ME was a massive factor in all my problems and she gave me tools to cope.’

The nurse taught Libbi the importance of keeping a diary to identify patterns in her illness. ‘Through this I learned that if my ME flared up, it would often be followed by a low spell in my mental health –and that the two were linked. This gave me back some feeling of control over my body.’

Sparrow

‘She is constantly scanning me to read the subtle signs that my body gives off,’ Libbi explains. ‘When she senses my health deteriorating [changes in heart rate, breathing and cortisol levels], she will nudge or jump at me to tell me to sit before I fall, and then lie across my legs in a grounding technique called deep pressure therapy to help me recover. This helps the blood pump better around my body and calms the physiological symptoms of panic and anxiety.

‘If I’m not aware an attack is developing, she will paw at me or lick my hand, and I know I need to manage it before it becomes an emergency. Sparrow is also trained to take a silicone band I wear on my wrist to indicate I need help if I’ve collapsed or fainted. She will show it to Irving, or anyone else at home, and they then know to follow her to find me.’

Libbi Mattick

Sparrow can also help empty the washing machine, pick up dropped items and close cupboards on command, meaning Libbi doesn’t have to bend down, an action that can trigger fainting episodes.

‘I never used to be able to go out alone. Now, thanks to Sparrow, I have independence.’

Libbi would like to see more understanding of ME and the devastating effect it can have on the UK’s estimated 250,000 sufferers. ‘Chronic illness is complex and the impact is far-reaching,’ Libbi says.

‘My entire identity is bound up in an invisible illness that cloaks every area of my life. But Sparrow has enabled me to embrace the positives. She is my shadow, keeping me safe.’

Libbi Mattick
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