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Autoimmune Diseases

Former Hockey Player’s Pit Bull Power Play

Photos: Courtesy of Julie Newell Photography

When Bryan Bickell was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), his professional hockey career with the Chicago Blackhawks came to an end. But, as the saying goes, when one door closes, another one opens. In Bickell’s case, that new open door allowed the father of two daughters to fuse two of his passions: helping pit bulls and other people struggling with MS.

“We started our newest program with service dogs for MS as a way to turn a tragedy into something positive,” says Bickell, 32, who runs the Bryan and Amanda Bickell Foundation with his wife.

The road to a diagnosis

As with other autoimmune conditions, such as celiac disease and rheumatoid arthritis, MS symptoms occur when a person’s immune system attacks his or her healthy cells. With MS, those healthy cells are the fatty material, called myelin, that surround the nerve fibers, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. MS symptoms include walking difficulties, stiffness and muscle spasms, tingling and numbness, vision problems, and vertigo and dizziness. Although no two people with MS have the same symptoms, those with the condition are also more prone to depression than those without the condition.

Before Bickell was diagnosed with MS, his doctors suspected simple vertigo or a tooth infection. When his family learned the answer, their reaction was “total shock,” he says. “Having an answer gave us something to focus on and make a plan to tackle.”

Bickell says that he has tried to approach the diagnosis with a positive attitude. “While this was not something we were planning on dealing with or something to celebrate, we decided early on that we were not going to let it define us and that we would remain positive, look for the best in our circumstances and use the diagnosis as a catalyst to help others also living with MS,” he says.

More than MS

The Bickells expanded the purpose of their foundation, which they initially formed to connect abused children with pit bull therapy dogs as a way of helping the children heal — and as a way of reducing common misconceptions about pit bulls being aggressive.

“The results of that program have been amazing,” Bickell says. “We have seen shy kids deathly afraid of dogs blossom and open up and tell the dogs things they haven’t been able to say to adults.”

Humanity’s best friends

Pairing pit bulls that they train with people who are struggling with MS was a natural progression for the foundation, as service dogs can help address many of the difficulties these individuals face on a daily basis.

A service pit bull can help someone with MS retrieve a dropped item, attain balance as they walk, turn lights on and off, open doors, seek help from a caregiver in the house and quietly navigate the world outside their home. “Assistance dogs also offer therapeutic emotional support and companionship,” Bickell says.

The Bickells plan to train more service dogs to increase their impact in the MS community. “We hope to offer additional opportunities to individuals living with MS through the creation of a network of support, and opportunities for retreats and outdoor experiences,” Bickell says. By continuing to share my story in hopes that it inspires others living with MS, especially those newly diagnosed.”

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