A hero, a dog and a belief in miracles

Tuesday, January 5, 2010; HE04

Pain became my constant companion at the age of 23. That was over 20 years ago.

I was a professor and special education teacher, but my body was deteriorating at Olympic speed. Flulike symptoms and swelling made working, socializing, shopping and performing the simplest chores excruciating. In addition, insomnia and the gnawing pain of fibromyalgia became more intense. I almost lost my legs on several occasions, when they swelled and turned black, blue and green with sores that oozed pus. One doctor thought it was gangrene -- but feeling a good pulse in my heel, he decided not to amputate.

Three horrifying years later I received a diagnosis of a rare, incurable blood disease called cryoglobulinemia with vasculitis. It's an autoimmune inflammatory disorder that turns blood to a Jell-O-like substance, often in cold temperatures, and can destroy vital organs. They also confirmed purpura, urticaria and Raynaud's phenomenon with chronic fatigue syndrome.

I disconnected from all I'd known. Divorce, homelessness, suicide attempts landed me in a psychiatric hospital alone and hopeless.

In 1997, I left Florida and moved to Colorado, where I met and married the man who has become my caretaker and hero. In 2003, we rescued a broken dog -- Gracie, an Italian greyhound. As a service dog, she performs many tasks that help me more safely participate in life. I'm in a wheelchair most of the time to avoid flare-ups and I can't stand, sit with my legs hanging down or even enjoy a cool breeze without risking the possibility of dying. But we go where no woman and dog have gone before -- visiting prisons, schools, orphanages, hospitals . . . wherever we are invited to share our message of hope and delivering "love kits" of encouragement because I'd rather die living than die dying. She has given me purpose and motivated me to write books, and we founded Second Chance with Saving Grace, a nonprofit organization that helps hurting people and animals. We haven't been hospitalized since we saved each other six years ago. Gracie's the best medicine, with no negative side effects.

I'm strong because I've learned the key to happiness: focusing on the needs of others.

I believe in miracles. Every day that I wake up is one.

-- Diane Dike, Eagle, Colo.

Are you living with a health problem? How do you cope, and what are the frustrations and successes? To share your story, send an email to health-science@washpost.com, and put "living with" in the subject line. Submissions should be limited to 300 words or fewer.

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