One Step at a Time: Discover the lifesaving gift of a service dog

By Hope Katz Gibbs
Freelance journalist,

Published by: Costco’s magazine, “The Connection”

Rescue thought he’d grow up to be a seeing eye dog — it’s the family business, after all. When he gets the news that he’s better suited to being a service dog, he’s worried he’s not up to the task. Then he meets Jessica, a girl whose life is turning out differently than she imagined. Now she needs Rescue to accomplish everyday tasks. Together, they find a way forward, one step at a time.

Such is the touching tale of “Jessica & Rescue,” the story of a resilient tween struggling to adjust to life after losing both of her legs — and the 80-pound black Labrador retriever that is always by her side who loves carrots, ear rubs, and the Red Sox.

Although readers don’t learn what happened to fictional Jessica in the 32-page picture book written for children 5-9, the lesson here is one of perseverance and inner-strength as Jessica adjusts to living with prosthetics, wheelchairs, walkers, and crutches.

“The mission of the book is the build empathy in young readers and demystifying what it means to have a disability,” insist first-time authors Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes, whose lives changed the afternoon of April 15, 2013 when a bomb went off at the Boston Marathon injuring 264 people.

“Jess and I both lost our left legs the day of the bombing, and were among the 17 that lost limbs,” shares Downes, now 35, who was a graduate student at the time, and last year finished his doctorate in clinical psychology. “Jess also had a very bad injury to her right leg, which was amputated two years later. When we meet kids in public, you can see their eyes popping out of their heads trying to figure out what’s in front of them.”

The Boston-based couples wed seven months before the bombing and were planning a move to California.

Instead, they’ve spent the last five years recovering — three of them (August 2014 to June 2017) at Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, MD.

They say they were honored to have been featured in the HBOdocumentary Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing and portrayed in the CBS Film Patriots Day — but note that writing “Rescue and Jessica” has been the most powerful respite from their reality.

“Rescue was a gift from the nonprofit, and we love to tell kids about the amazing things he can do for us — physically in terms of fetching objects, but also the emotional comfort he provides,” explains Kensky, 37, an oncology nurse who recently returned to work at Massachusetts General Hospital and is pursuing her PhD in nursing. “Even an hour of brainstorming about the book lifted the cloud that hangs over us. We hope that it will do the same for all those who read it.”

While Kensky and Downes know it’s essential to keep a similar tragedy from happening again, they are focused on highlighting the joy that Rescue, who was named the ASPCA’s 2017 Dog of the Year, brings their lives. They hope all kids can project themselves into the story.

“We certainly want this book to resonate with children who are going through serious medical situations, but we think an able-bodied kid can relate to what it means to practice hard, encounter obstacles, and continue to practice,” adds Kensky, who has endured countless surgeries to help heal her wounds. “And, we want them to know how much more successful they can be when they have the help of a good teammate. Fictional Jessica is only as strong as Rescue is.”

The book’s illustrator, Scott Magoon — who also ran in the 2013 Boston Marathon — says he was nervous but honored to bring this special story to life.

“My goal was to capture the characters’ hopeful resignation that they have each other to face their challenging lives. They are stronger together.”

Hope Katz Gibbs is a journalist living in Richmond, VA who is awed by the courage and strength of Jessica and Patrick, and thrilled to know that dogs like Rescue are saving lives, and hearts. Hope is proud to be a caretaker of her son’s pup, Sadie, who brings joy daily. She teaches us, “Be the person your dog thinks you are.”