By Jim Price
She pushed her body about as far as it would go on the 13-mile mostly uphill half-marathon. At the finish line she was exhausted, but she had conquered much more than the huge physical challenge.
That 2007 race had really begun seven years earlier when a tragic accident left her at the bottom of an emotional and physical pit. Dianna Willis was run over by a large diesel pickup in her hometown of Boise, Idaho. The driver had been pulling out of a parking garage, looking the other way. The accident sent Dianna to the hospital for a month, followed by a half-year of physical therapy, and it ended the career of her first Guide Dog, Ripley. "Amazingly, he wasn't hurt physically," she said, "but he became very fearful and overcome with stress. We had to retire him."
Willis had to push on, and it was tough. "What the accident did to me physically was horrible," she said. Her long list of injuries included three fractured vertebra and a severed tendon in one knee that required surgery. "But what it did to me psychologically was even worse."
When she left the hospital, she realized the accident had destroyed nearly all of her confidence. "It took a long time to get that back, but fortunately Kilroy was just the right dog to help me do it." Kilroy was a Labrador-Golden Retriever cross that she described as being, ". . . an amazing boy. He had to deal with my lack of confidence and be patient and strong enough to see me through that period. He knew I was struggling even to make the decision to cross the street. Some dogs wouldn't have been able to tolerate that. He was the perfect dog for me when I needed him most."
Willis, 39, recently began her second master's degree program, this time at Boise State University, in early childhood studies with a focus on special needs children. (Her first one degree is from Georgetown University in political science.) She recently was at the Oregon Campus of Guide Dogs for the Blind to get to know her third guide, Scooby, a 2-year-old black Lab. As she spoke, he was sprawled lazily across her feet, seemingly asleep but with one eye half open, ready if she needed him.
"It's great," she said. "We've only been together a week and already I feel I can trust him. I told them (GDB) I didn't care about male or female, the breed, or the color, but I wanted a dog who was willing to go and be active and busy. But who also could settle for three hours if necessary. I'm just amazed that a dog can have so much get up and go and drive yet can be so gentle. They found me the perfect one."
Dianna was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa when she was 7. She could see pretty well until her vision took a serious turn for the worse when she was 20, and then again when she was 25. "Now, I only see shadows," she explained.
She was at Georgetown when she decided it was finally time for a dog. "Living in D.C. and experiencing increased vision loss, I had become more fearful and stressed, and that just isn't my personality." She knew about GDB, but also considered another school on the East Coast that would have been a lot closer. "What impressed me most about GDB is the follow-up support services. Plus there was respect and professionalism toward me as an individual that I really appreciated."
She remembers fondly those first few days with Ripley. "When I came for training and got my first dog, it really did change my life. I loved the feeling of being guided by a dog. It took away that fear and tension, that apprehension. Suddenly I felt safe. Having a dog gives me a sense of moving in my environment this is so much more natural, fluid. It just feels more comfortable. I'm a fast walker and a dog allows me to be free."
That half-marathon in Boise two years ago was a turning point for Willis. "Kilroy was with me," she said, smiling at the memory. "He loved it." During the race she would occasionally hold on to a strap attached to another runner to give Kilroy a break from guiding. And when they finished, she knew it meant a lot more than just a race.
"Finishing that race was huge. It was a big deal for me physically, because it meant I had come all the way back from the accident."
It also meant she had her confidence back and she was ready for the next big challenge, whatever that may be, with Scooby along to help.