Posted June 11, 2007
Sophie, a 3-1/2-year-old Rhodesian Ridgeback mix, has flown more than 275,000 miles. She also has been a co-leader, in a specific sense, of the Idaho State University Institute of Rural Health, a powerhouse research center under the ISU Kasiska College of Health Professions.
The IRH is led by its director, Dr. Beth Hudnall Stamm, who in turn, is led by the aforementioned Sophie. Without the help from her assistance animal, Stamm could, quite literally, be lost.
Since arriving at the Institute of Rural Health in 1999, Stamm has brought in more than $17.5 million in research grants and other sources of external funding to ISU. The IRH is currently working on about $16 million worth of ongoing grants and has an annual budget of more than $5.5 million. This is no small accomplishment for an enterprise that only receives about $150,000 annually from State of Idaho education appropriations and competes for its funding with better-known institutions like University of Washington, Harvard, Stanford and UCLA.
This story begins 20 years ago, when in 1987 Stamm fell down a flight of metal stairs. In horrible irony, Stamm, an internationally recognized expert in traumatic brain injury (TBI) and traumatic stress, suffered a TBI herself. Her life changed following that injury, but she and her family found ways to work around most of the results of the brain damage. Then, during Thanksgiving week of 2004 while out on the deck of her home located in Pocatello’s Mink Creek area, Stamm slipped on an icy patch, struck her head and suffered significant additional brain damage.
“I don’t know how long I was knocked out. I was lying on the deck in the cold and couldn’t move,” Stamm said. “I thought I was going to freeze to death; finally I managed to open the door and crawl in the house.”
“After the accident in 2004, I had a lot of trouble working,” Stamm said. “Everybody at the Institute of Rural Health was very supportive and Linda Hatzenbuehler, (dean of the Kasiska College of Health Professions) was fantastic. I couldn’t have kept my job without their help.”
As a result of the 2004 accident, Stamm has a variety of orientation, hearing, vision and balance problems.
This is where Sophie comes in to save the day. “Sophie is specifically trained to help me with my disability,” Stamm said. “She helps me with my balance and orientation. If I’m lost or disorientated, she helps me find my way.”
Stamm maintains a rigorous work schedule and travels about 100 days a year representing Idaho State University. Stamm and Sophie have traveled across the United States including Alaska and Hawaii, as well as to Canada, Germany, France and Jordan. “People laugh when I tell them this, but she can always find a restroom. When I’m at a conference, she helps me find my way around the hotel.” The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) specifies people with disabilities have the right to have their service animals with them in any locations that serve the public such as stores, hotels and airplanes.
When flying with Sophie – who is described, laughingly by Stamm’s husband, Hank, as “luggage with legs” – the dog rides on the floor at Stamm’s feet.
Sophie has changed the kinds of clothes Stamm packs.
“When I’m representing ISU and meeting with officials, or speaking at a Congressional briefing (as Stamm was scheduled to do in April 2007) I like to look professional and I was freaking out about having dog hair on my suits,” Stamm notes. “Now I just wear tweed.”
And then there are the dozen or so pages of documents – including rabies-vaccination papers, official service dog papers, specialized visas, etc. – that Stamm must carry with her. In the United States, certification papers are not generally required due to the ADA, but international travel can be a nightmare because countries have different regulations.
Sophie’s longest flight was 30 hours traveling from Pocatello to Amman, Jordan where Stamm was participating in a NATO research workshop. The dog, even after an 11-hour overseas flight and confusion in the Paris airport, handled the travel with aplomb, carrying out her duties.
Stamm attributes her dog’s acumen, which includes understanding her commands in American Sign Language, to long hours of training. Stamm is affiliated with the International Association of Animal Behavioral Consultants as an Associate Animal Behavior Consultant specializing in service dogs. She now holds service dog courses through the Idaho State University Continuing Education program.
Sophie has become an accepted member of the IRH.
“Sophie’s presence in the Institute of Rural Health is an excellent influence,” notes Neill Piland, IRH research professor who has an office down the hall from Stamm in Gravely Hall. “Sophie has been absolutely critical to Beth’s management of her illness, and has helped Beth continue to lead this institute. Beth couldn’t do it without Sophie’s help.”
For more information on service animals, visit the Web site www.isu.edu/~bhstamm.