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Service Dogs for Boston Marathon Victims
Assistance pup helps Jessica Kensky navigate a new reality

On the surface, Boston looks like a city that has fully recovered from the tragedy and fear surrounding last year's marathon bombing. Nearly 9,000 additional runners are participating in today's race, bringing the number of participants up to over 35,755.  And officials are expecting one million spectators, double last year's turnout.

But for many of the victims, the journey towards recovery is only beginning. That is very much the case for Jessica Kensky and her husband Patrick Downes, two of the 16 people who lost limbs in last year's bombing. Their injuries were so severe that they were among the last marathon victims to leave the hospital.

Both Jessica and Patrick had their left legs amputated, but Jessica was at risk for losing both legs. She ultimately chose to keep her right leg, but it has made learning to walk extremely difficult and painful. Her service dog, Rescue, has been by her side to steady Jessica when she walks on crutches or with her prosthetic. The Black Labrador also helps her with a variety of tasks most people take for granted, like picking up the telephone and pressing buttons in the elevator.

Rescue is from NEADS, a Massachusetts based nonprofit that trains assistance dogs for people with disabilities. NEADS has offered a free service dog to any marathon bombing victim with a permanent physical disability and Jessica is the first to accept the offer.

Jessica sees Rescue as much more than an assistance dog. Rescue keeps Jessica and her husband physically active, a challenge for amputees.

"Here's this big animal who needs to be taken out, he needs exercise, he needs to go to the bathroom, he needs to be fed," Jessica told NPR. "On the day you just don't want to get off the couch, you don't want to get in your wheelchair, you don't want to put your prosthetic on, he looks at you with those eyes and you've got to take him out."

Rescue also provides emotional support, cuddling, giving kisses, and making Jessica and her husband laugh. It's been hard for the couple to rest, they would often wake up at 3 a.m. with feelings of depression and anxiety. After Rescue joined the family, Jessica finally started sleeping through the night for the first time.

The bombing has changed the course of Jessica and Patrick's lives. Jessica hasn't been able to return to her job as an oncology nurse and Patrick had to abandon his plan to do a pre-doctoral program in San Francisco, where they had been planning to relocate.

But for now, they can only take life one step at a time. It's going to be a long road, but Jessica and Patrick are immensely grateful for Rescue and the joy he's managed to bring to their lives.

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JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.
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